Carina Geldhauser. Eight rules to survive in ChechnyaForeigners in Chechnya are extremely rare. They are either journalists, NGO-professionals, or doctors from medicins sans frontieres. And, two months ago, there was me, a young researcher at the University of Bonn, Germany. Primarily, I am a mathematician, analyzing the properties and dynamical behaviour of mathematical models used to describe structural changes in complex biomolecules. My research is financed by a scholarship of the foundation of German Business, who decided to finance me, a farmer's child, because they believe I can 'shape society in a responsible position', no matter my background. I won't say I am changing society, but rather that I am running a scholarship programme for students who would not have the chance to study in Germany in another way. The programme I run is called 'Учеба Без Границ', an the students are from Chechnya. I did not have any idea about the Northern Caucasus when I joined 'Учеба Без Границ', but I liked designing and implementing a scholarship, profiting from my own experiences with the Foundation of German business. So, at 'Учеба Без Границ', I came to think about the question “what is a good scholarship programme for gifted Chechen students? How can we foster those  students with the biggest potential, to encourage them realize their own ideas and 'shape their society to the better'?”

It soon became clear that Chechnya is changing quickly and that there was not enough information available in Germany to answer my question. As all mathematicians, I am quite stubborn and I can think an unsolved question for a long time, until I suddenly make a step forward.

This spring, I got the chance to visit Chechnya, and so I invested my monthly scholarship and bought the airplane tickets.

I was the only foreign passenger in the Grozny Avia flight from Moscow to Grozny – the only direct flight to Chechnya. Being a foreigner costed me already 540 RUB of “overweight fee” at the Check-In, although I carried precisely the amount I was allowed to carry, and while all Chechens in front of me, who were carrying enormous amounts of luggage with them, remained without a fine. In this situation, the words of a Moscow friend came to my mind:

“Be careful. There are no rules in Chechnya”.

Actually, this is not true. There are too many rules in Chechnya, at least for the regular citizens.

I'll give you some examples:

1 - There is only one Ramzan who can have a target on his car with the name RAMZAN.

2 – Never buy a car with black windows if you don't have permission from “above”.

3 – If you want to have a new, big and all-black German car, make yourself valuable to Ramzan. He'll organize one for you, and you get the target K – RA.

Ok, stop with the stupid examples. Let's make our way to the more serious ones. Some of them apply only to women, for example this one:

4 – If you want to enter a public building, you must wear a headscarf, and a skirt. In case of the university, the skirt must be long, until your feet.

Now this one was particularly hard for me. I understand the headscarf-thing (you might consider it a religious tradition, after all), but why is a woman with high heels and an appealingly skinny skirt better than me, the typical German in hiking boots, jeans and waterproof jacket, so clothes which are not sexy at all?

You might take this rule for just a religious tradition, but it's more than that, it became a fundamental pillar of order in Chechen society. Nowadays, trousers are a symbol of  “a woman who does not know her borders”, so if a women wears them, Chechen men will not be respectful towards her. Now, you might say: I don't care about their respect. That can be true in many cases, though there are some occasions where you are dependent on the respect of the men around you. For me that was, for example, when I was travelling back in the train Grozny-Moscow, and the men had the neighbouring seats in Platzkart. Or at the university, when a soldier with a Kalashnikov in his hand came running after me to tell me he was NOT going to let me in, because of my only medium-long skirt.

5 – Women must be at home before night falls.

The reason for that rule is not clear. Pretending normality is one of the major efforts of Kadyrov's regime, so one would think that it is safe to walk around at night.  However, this rule applies to all women, also to me, and people take it very serious. I made one exception to it during my whole stay, when I was doing a small trip with a journalist. The journalist was a well-behaving Chechen man, with a well-educated son and a car – enough to ensure my host family that I am in good hands, I thought. But when I came home around 21h, my hosts were very worried and also a bit angry, though they tried to hide this from me.

So what's the reason for this rule? Surely, the families are influenced by the post-war years, when it was indeed dangerous to be outside, when there were a lot of military troops and checkpoints along the streets. For sure, at this time, mothers took the habit of calling their children every hour, to see it they are still ok.  I suppose that during these dangerous times, the definition of a well-behaving lady included also the feature of  “not being outside when it's dark”. Consequently, even nowadays, it is considered “abnormal” for a girl to walk in the streets at night, especially if she is alone.

6 – If you want to make career, go to the Mosque on friday afternoon

This does not say that people are not religious, in fact, most of them are very religious, especially men. In troubled times, one seeks hope and faith in religion, so it is not surprising that religion became more and more important in Chechnya in the last two decades. It is also not surprising that religion is an important part of a national identity, and it serves extremely well as a reason why Chechens and Russians are not alike at all. But what pricked up my ears was the following statement:

“Of course I believe in God, but I do not go to the mosque, like all these hypocritical men do, who respect no rules at all in their actual life.”

In fact, looking closely, the role of Islam is turned inside-out by those who strive for power, and religious traditions have become symbols of showing on which side one stands. Rectors go to the mosque, some prorectors as well, but professors usually not. This brings me to a related rule:

7 – There is no honest way to success

In Chechnya, the full tragedy of “soviet-style leadership” is on plain sight: You don't get jobs by qualification, but exclusively by money.

You might call me a naïve German, who got shocked by what is the normality in post-soviet space since decades: companies florish by connections to the government, graduates in law have betrayed the law many times before they finally become judges, people which do not even have a proper degree become rectors of the State University ….

No, I don't mean that kind of “intrinsic problems”. My statement refers to any decently paid job in the whole country. A regular person, with a regular life, seeking for a regular job, relies on the help of his larger family, to find some job, and to pay for it. And as both sides know this has nothing to do with qualification, or interest in the job, what counts is only the salary. And there is nowhere to escape: Russian companies do not accept Chechen University degrees, which is clear as:

8 – Studying is for those who don't have anything better to do

Though I know quite a number of researchers from post-soviet space, I still cannot quite understand the role of higher education in Chechnya. In particular, I miss the feeling that there is respect and exchange among those few smart and intelligent people working at the departments, which try to do good research despite the bad conditions. It seemed to me that the professors and 'dozent' entered a “survival mode”, and have ceased any fight against the real problems, but focus on their only space of influence: The classroom.

One more interesting fact is the following: There are no dormitories in Grozny. Either you can reach the university by marshrutka every morning, or you don't study. Some time ago, there were “branches of the Chechen State University” in some smaller cities. But these branches have shut down. In the faces of some teachers I could read that they did not understand what was my problem with this. What is the reason for a Chechen student to study, anyway?

The Chechen State University counts a high number of distance students. I heard that a lot of boys are distance students, and that this is normal, because having a job is considered better than having a degree.

Did you know what is an active student, by the way? At the Chechen State university, this is a student who goes to meetings with ministers on the weekend, listens to music events and theatre.


So, what does that mean for my question? Is there any way to give young people with ideas the means to develop them and to create something new?

Yes, there is, I think, but it's hard. Enthusiastic young people feel like running against an (in)visible wall every day. The society they live in does not believe that a single person can make a difference. If you want to push forward an innovative idea, no matter how small, you are told: “Forget about this. It will never work.” Or “It's impossible.” Or, even worse, you might be considered one who is not respecting the rules of society.

Even those who are already taking action for their community tell me how demotivation it is. They are longing for fresh air, a space to think, or maybe just some positive words about their work every once in a while. And, to be honest, all the active young people I talked to are taking their motivation from experiences they had abroad, during a course of studies, or attending a workshop. It seems that while facing a total absence of perspectives, the only motor which keeps them going are their dreams, and the longer they stay in Chechnya, the less they know how to dream.