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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Ride From Grozny Lasts About 300 Years

Our ride to Grozny is a grand old '64 Volga with no wipers and no rearview mirror, a worn but beloved machine. Abdullah Masayev tends the car like a shrine, because that is what it is. In this car he has preserved the memory of his father, who was a chauffeur. So Abdullah left school and went to work as a driver, too.


The headlights give it a stern and determined expression, and its entire body seems to strain forward into the sky as though striving to take off. On the back of the front seat, a child's picture of a robot is scratched into the vinyl. Along the way it groans and shudders and squawks with every pothole, gear-change and corner, as though reminding us of its great age.


Our driver -- a slight, dark man of 36 -- stepped forward out of a crowd of Chechen fighters to offer us a lift. We had mentioned we were looking for a ride to Grozny and someone immediately went off to a microphone where an announcement was made and a minute later Abdullah introduced us to his wonderful ancient car.


These hulking old Volgas are not so economical. Abdullah needs petrol but he will not take our money. "No, it is not our custom. I would sell a rug, sell a cow, but never would I let you buy me petrol," he says. The price of a lift on the Grozny road is to listen to what the driver has to say. They drive at a dignified, unhurried pace so as not to speed their story. After all, they have about 300 years of Chechen history to get through.


With one hand on the wheel and one eye on their captive front-seat passenger, they gesticulate vigorously, speaking volubly and without pause. And occasionally they look at the road. After a few hours of this kind of re-education you find yourself wondering how people in these parts ever manage to have a conversation with one another.


Across the misty field is a stand of feathery trees and beyond, the snow-encrusted mountains gleam. It would be a beautiful landscape but for the litter of war machines everywhere and the electricity pylons planted across the foreground.


On the road you hear stories about people being shot in the midst of their daily business. So despite the scenery and the conversation, something inside wants to minimize the amount of time on this road, close to where the Russian tanks are squatting moodily.


"Can you drive a little faster?" I ask, trying to keep the alarm out of my voice as one or another of our hosts creeps along at about 35kph. Surprised by such an odd request they oblige as best they can, but after a kilometer or two they forget and the story of the long history of Chechen struggle takes over again.


On the road from Vladikavkaz in Northern Ossetia to Grozny in Chechnya you cross the boundaries of many grudges. In these parts, you come across people from different places who remind you of each other, not only in their unexpected kindness, but in the hatred they express for one another.


In a moment you are moved by their extraordinary generosity, and then disturbed by the vengeance of centuries. You are all at once drawn in, then find yourself gazing across a vast gulf to some distant and unattainable place. The friends you meet along your way are immediately intimate, then suddenly incomprehensible.


Driving down the road from Grozny back to Vladikavkaz we are racing the darkness home. Our first driver has a stack of ammunition which he delivers to some friends. Our second driver begs me to come to see his place in summer, to stay for half a year or more so as to get a proper feel for the place. As he drives the sun gently departs, leaving a stripe painted orange beneath the blue, while below the violet mountains glow. Two poplars stand silhouetted and the moon comes up like a promise.


There is a war going on, but we are on the way home and in the fading light a sense of peace descends.When we cross the border out of Chechnya, Vakha Gaisumov, our Chechen driver, puts on a tape of chanting nasal prayers. Like many in these parts, he finds it a little eerie driving off the edge of his own little place and across other tiny spheres. But he grits his teeth and does us a favor, because he is a man of honor who made us a promise he cannot break.


He drops us on a corner at the back of the Russian line as the evening turns to ink. Above the moon is like a bright coin flipped into the sky. Who will it favor when it falls? The tanks loom, blackened shapes in the darkness, and on the corner a few straggling people without a lift wait for an empty car. The cars are few, and those that drift by are full.


But we are lucky. Some Ingush from a village we visited yesterday recognize us. They are three big men in a tiny Zhiguli, and we are four. But they insist it can be done and they are right. The three of them share the front, one of them strangely quiet, perched uncomfortably on the handbrake. We fold ourselves into the backseat.


Their story goes back to the days of Genghis Khan. They pour out the handed-down memories of centuries-old betrayals, paid in donkeyloads of gold, while the radio sings lustily along. Slowly, between old battles and new passions, the nature of their journey seeps out. Yusup Bazgiyev, who gave up his seat for us to sit on the handbrake, was shot.


It is a pity he can't speak, they say, because he knows a lot more about those ancient stories than they. He's a smart guy with three higher education qualifications. He holds up his remaining three and a half fingers. He was shot yesterday, just driving his car.


The road is too short to tell it all, but they tell us someday we must return to hear the full story of their ancient struggle and to drink a huge amount of vodka, to spin our brains into their stratosphere. They stop the car at a house: "Have you eaten? Let's eat." But night has already beaten us and it is too late to accept.


The wounded one cannot speak because he has just come out of a seven-hour throat operation in the local clinic, and they are driving him home. But the bullet is still buried irretrievably in his neck, right next to his spine, where it will stay the rest of his life. It turns out they were not intending to go our way, but to take him straight home from the hospital. They drove about 10 kilometers in the opposite direction, just for us.


Like everyone around here, they do have a price. It seems modest. It is not paid in dollars or in rubles. Just write the truth, they say. But their truth may be different from mine. I can only write what I saw.





Robyn Dixon is the Moscow bureau chief for The Melbourne Age. She returned from Chechnya on Dec. 16 and contributed this article to The Moscow Times.