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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechens Picking Up Pens Instead of Rifles

MTModern University students studying at the Moscow campus. The university has 10 long-distance learning centers in Chechnya.
When the first Chechen war came to a close in 1996, Ruslan Akhtakhanov looked forward to returning to business as usual. He had been the manager of a wine production facility, and his factory in the Chechen district of Nadterechny emerged from the fighting unharmed by bombings or battles.

But within a few months, Akhtakhanov found himself devoting the majority of his time and effort not to reviving his business, but to establishing an institution that would do more to affect his people than any bottle of wine ever could. Seven years later, the Grozny branch of the Moscow-based Modern University stands as a reminder of the good that can be accomplished in even the bleakest times. "I never thought of changing my profession," Akhtakhanov said. "If not for the war, I would have never done it. But I clearly saw that all the tragedies of our nation in the past decade came from ignorance. I decided to replace rifles with pens."

Last month, the first Chechen branch of Modern University, which teaches 150,000 students across Russia, celebrated its fifth year of operation. The branch, which began with 172 students, now teaches law, economics, management and information technologies to 2,300 students in 10 centers throughout Chechnya. Thirty-six of the initial group of students received diplomas last fall.

The school operated throughout the mid- and late-'90s despite numerous incidents of abuse, kidnapping and murder of civilians in the republic. Even the second war, which began September 1999, interrupted studies only for one year.


Ruslan Akhtakhanov

By fall 2000, most Grozny students were back in class listening to Moscow and Cambridge professors of law, management and economy in Olimpiisky Proyezd, a popular Grozny district.

The key to the operation is a satellite dish attached to the roof of a building at 29 Starosunzhenskaya Ulitsa in Grozny. The server, located at the university's headquarters, transmits lectures and other educational material to a satellite in Grozny, as well as to the university's other 349 affiliates throughout Russia and the former Soviet republics.

"Distance learning gives us the chance to learn by ourselves," Islam Shakhabov, a 19-year-old law student in Grozny, said in a telephone interview. "Everything is here, and we don't have to run around in search of libraries that were destroyed during the wars. There are well-equipped computer classes, and the lectures on satellite television are a great way to study."

The university's library includes 600 lectures on video, many of which are given by renowned academics -- physician Sergei Kapitsa, lawyer Genrikh Padva and historian Roi Medvedev among them.

Khava Dudayeva, a whiz kid who graduated from a Grozny school at 15, is now 17 and in her third year studying law in the Grozny branch. She said by telephone that listening to Cambridge professors "widens your scope."

Dudayeva's family of four lost their apartment in the bombings and now shares a home with another family. But this is not her main concern. "The most difficult thing is to get to the university when the streets are blocked by the military," Dudayeva said.

The Chechen branch has struggled for survival. To open the branch in the first place, the university gave Akhtakhanov $6,000 worth of equipment, including televisions, computers, satellite dishes, desks and stationery. More equipment came later after the first batch was lost in the war.

In fall 1999, bombing and shelling by federal troops threatened to destroy the premises. So Akhtakhanov evacuated $20,000 worth of equipment to the home of rector Ruslan Goitemirov, in the village of Goity. During a subsequent mopping-up operation, troops effectively stole the entire cache. "Officers took it away, leaving us a note with their credentials," Akhtakhanov said. "But we have been unable to claim it back despite our tremendous efforts."

Modern University replaced most of the equipment the following year, and instruction continued. "We were lucky," Akhtakhanov said. "Our building remained in one piece."

After the university reopened, Akhtakhanov slept on the premises to guard the equipment. Even now, the location is not completely safe. "Mopping-up stopped about a year ago," Goitemirov said by phone from Grozny. "We are being visited by bearded men. Some openly wear berets with a wolf on it," the rebels' symbol of independence.

In January, an engineer from Goitemirov's office was summoned by men in camouflage, who took him away in an armored car. "Since then, we can't find him," Goitemirov said.

According to recent figures released by the Chechen government, nearly 250 people have gone missing this year.

The Grozny branch is the most extreme operation of Modern University. Other schools operate in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, in the prisons of Penza and Samara and on military vessels in the Baltic Sea. There are several conventional institutes operating in Chechnya. But students encounter unconventional problems in getting an education at these locations, including random checks on buses and mopping-up operations that seal off villages for indeterminate periods of time.

"Many young people don't have the opportunity to get a higher education," law student Shakhabov said. "For some of them, their parents are just too worried to let them travel. Some can't afford expenses linked to living in Grozny. Modern University has eliminated these risks to an extent."

While other institutes in Grozny are free, students of Modern University pay tuition of $200 a year. (Modern University students in Moscow pay up to $700 per year.) The Grozny campus is loss-making.

Just what a degree from the program can do for graduates is still up in the air, as the Chechen economic situation limits options. Goitemirov confirmed that some graduates are jobless -- mainly because there just aren't any jobs.

Still, the program grows. This year, the university will open eight branches, including several in the mountainous regions of Shatoi, Nozhai-Yurt and Vedeno. The university plans to admit another 2,800 Chechen students in the next academic year. A new field of study, psychology, will be added, and it may prove to be a popular discipline. Experts believe that a large portion of the adult population and up to 60 percent of children throughout the republic are suffering from psychological troubles relating to the wars. The republic is critically short of professional psychologists.

"There is no order in the republic," Goitemirov said. "But we believe that by extending our presence in Chechnya we will distract more people from weapons. The republic has a lot of potential for our graduates. Whenever order is restored, there will be plenty of demand for them."