Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Taking a Stroll Along Chechnya's Street of Dreams

GUDERMES, Chechnya -- The loveliest street in Chechnya runs for all of a block here in the battered republic's second-largest city.

It is lined with trees, paved and washed. The buildings, new or newly renovated, include a cultural center and two shops. One deals in cellphones, which only recently began to work in Chechnya. The other sells jewelry, including a necklace set that costs the equivalent of $19,000, an astonishing price in a place devastated by a decade of war and mired in abject poverty.

Even when winter's chill lingers and the small swimming pool in a park is dry, people play volleyball in a fenced-in court or stroll along the sidewalks in what passes for safety in Chechnya. Barricades block traffic on one end of the block, a checkpoint controls entry from the other.

Russia, of course, gave the world the Potemkin Village. And the street is a showcase of the Kremlin's campaign to show that life here is improving. It is a showcase for something else, too: The opaque confluence of power and politics that shores up President Vladimir Putin's hard line on Chechnya.

The street is named after Akhmad Kadyrov, the former rebel who sided with Moscow in the second Chechen conflict, who was elected the republic's president in 2003 and who was assassinated last May. It has been rebuilt by his son Ramzan, the unelected deputy prime minister who is considered the most powerful man in Chechnya, reportedly one of the richest and arguably the most feared.

The street pays homage not only to the father, but also to the son. There is a boxing club called Ramzan on one corner and a smaller sports center halfway down the block, also called Ramzan. A hotel, the only one in Chechnya not on a government compound, consists of five buildings and offers 200 rooms to aspiring athletes and other visitors who enjoy the munificence of Ramzan, whose notoriety is such that his given name suffices.

"We have pride in you," says a large poster of the son that hangs on the sports club beside another of the father, and a man whose military, religious and social credentials earned far more respect that the younger Kadyrov possesses.

Kadyrov, 28, describes the street as his contribution to Chechnya's rebirth. Meeting with reporters at the sports center, his headquarters and a sort of Chechen version of John Gotti's Ravenite Social Club in Little Italy, attended by muscular and deferential men, Kadyrov laughed off a question that instead called this street, however improbably, "Little Paris."

"In a few years," he said, mystifyingly, "it will be called a Little Hong Kong.''

For now, Kadyrov's reconstruction efforts, like the Kremlin's generally, remain erratic and infected with what even officials admit is rampant corruption. A broken Ferris wheel rises not far away like a specter of a long-lost time of peace.

Kadyrov's ambitions, however, are as boundless as, apparently, his wealth (which he denies having).

"I have friends who have businesses, and they help me,'' he explained, though a shopkeeper in the jewelry store, which displays a full-length Ramzan portrait, said he was the owner.

In January, accompanied by pop stars and socialites, Kadyrov broke ground on a multimillion-dollar water park on the edge of town -- this in a place where running water is a rarity.

"I want to bring back the smiles to the faces of our children," Kadyrov said in a conversation in which he also vowed to hunt down and kill separatists who continue to resist.

"They must be eliminated where they appear," he said. "They do not understand human language.

"The only word they understand is the word death."

The younger Kadyrov has given his name to another aspect of Chechnya's intractable conflict: the Kadyrovski, a militia that has been blamed for killings and kidnappings. In a recent report, Human Rights Watch accused Kadyrov's forces of sowing fear, not security. "In areas under the effective control of Ramzan Kadyrov, the fear-stricken atmosphere is astounding,'' it said.

The militia -- reported to have 5,000 to 7,000 fighters -- began as his father's security force and includes rebels who switched sides. It operates in the shadows of the Federal Security Service.

After the elder Kadyrov's assassination, Kadyrov assumed his official role as first deputy under the new president, Alu Alkhanov. He might have become president himself had the republic's new constitution not imposed a minimum age of 30.

Putin, apparently unbothered by the accusations dogging Kadyrov, awarded him the nation's highest honor in December, naming him a Hero of Russia for unspecified acts of "valor and heroism."

Here on Akhmad Kadyrov Street, he is seen as a hero, but a more complicated one than the hagiography of Putin's commendation.

"Many of his features can be explained by the features of the republic,'' said Omar Abdulvadudov, director of the sports center.

He said Kadyrov, a former boxer, had created the opportunity for young people to train again.

"He is not always kind," Abdulvadudov went on, "but not everything that is said about Ramzan is true."

Through the looking glass of Chechnya, what is true remains diffuse. So does hope, even on this street, which so neatly symbolizes the dead end in which Chechnya finds itself.

There is a bit of reconstruction, a few pockets of stability, presided over by a controversial figure who is accused of killing hundreds of his countrymen to preserve a status quo that favors the Kremlin. In return, Putin is willing not just to overlook the murders, corruption, human rights abuses and general misery but to lionize Kadyrov, so long as Chechnya remains a loyal part of Russia.

"I would like all of Chechnya to be as nice as this,'' said Sultan Khadzheyev, a mechanic, as he walked along the street.

He is 25, an age that makes him a target for harassment, or worse. He is often stopped and searched by federal and Chechen soldiers, he said, when he ventures out of Gudermes to work at his uncle's garage in Argun, a village nearby.

And so he has his doubts about whether this pretty place is a harbinger of better times. "I do not know," he said, when asked if he could imagine the day when all of Chechnya would resemble this street. "I am not God."