A story of post-war Chechnya that tells the story of Russia

Chechnya is a small, but well-known part of Russia -- mainly due to its history of rampant human rights abuse. This is the story of Oyub Titiev, a local human rights activist who remembers it all.

Daria Sukharchuk
Daria Sukharchuk NewsMavens, Central & Eastern Europe
A story of post-war Chechnya that tells the story of Russia - NewsMavens
Oyub Titiev, Memorial Human Rights Center

Why this story matters:

"It's hard to write about Chechnya -- you either get stuck discussing terror and torture or write about how normal people lead normal lives in the newly rebuilt Grozny -- and forget about the terror".

This is how Shura Burtin, the author of this text, who knows Oyub Titiev personally, talks about it in a podcast about the long, detailed life story of this Chechen human rights advocate who spent his life saving his people -- first from the "federals" (the Russian army during the last Chechen war), then from the dictatorial regime of Ramzan Kadyrov.

Titiev looks like an unlikely candidate for human rights work: he was born in a small mountain village, and never belonged to the well-educated middle-class that Russian human rights advocates, or journalists (the border between these two professions is rather porous in Russia), come from. In the early 80s, he ran a boxing club in his village, that eventually became pretty successful. But in the 90s, 19 of the boys from his club joined the Dudayev separatist forces -- and 17 were killed in a day. He personally collected their bodies from the battlefield (sometimes in pieces).

That proved to be a turning point, and he started helping Chechen villagers find their missing relatives -- a job that was typically done by women (as women were less likely to be killed by the Russian military). Gradually, Titiev earned himself a reputation as the man who really could find your missing relatives.

Later, as the Kadyrov regime settled in after the second Chechen war in the early 2000s, he joined "Memorial"-- a prominent Russian human rights NGO. His colleagues remember him as a kind of human database: he remembered everyone and everything to do with people gone missing or killed.

Many, of course, wondered why he never stopped working for "Memorial"-- even after their director, Natalia Estemirova, was murdered in 2009 and their office in Grozny was attacked several times. But it seems that he felt personally responsible to keep on doing his work against all odds. It seems, that for Titiev, it was a matter of his personal honor more than anything else. Estemirovy trusted him -- and he had to carry on her work. But it became increasingly hard to advocate human rights in Chechnya since Kadyrov was declared a persona non grata in the Western world, and he declared war on human rights advocates in Chechnya in revenge. 

They [human rights advocates] are enemies of their people, they have no people, no nation, no religion... I am surprised that this man who works for them is Chechen. And I am going to show you all how we'll break their back

This is what Kadyrov said about Titiev some days after he was arrested early in January this year. His wife and daughters fled to Sweden before his arrest on his instructions, and he is now on trial in Chechnya.

His crime? Being in possession of 200 grams of marijuana. Although according to everyone who knew Titiev, he shunned drugs and alcohol throughout his life as it went against his strict Muslim faith. 

Details from the story:

  • Russia has led two wars against separatists in Chechnya: 1994-96, and 1999-2009.
  • Akhmad Kadyrov (the father of Ramzan Kadyrov, the current PM of Chechnya), rose to power during the 2nd Chechen war.
  • During the second Chechen war, with its most active phase over by 2000, the Russian military had committed many war crimes, including rape, torture and mass killings of civilians. Anna Politkovskaya, a "Novaya Gazeta" journalist, was murdered for shedding light on those crimes.
  • In 2017, Novaya Gazeta published a story about torture and murder of gay men in Chechnya. It led to a ban on Kadyrov forbidding him to enter the US and the EU. 
  • Kadyrov's power is tolerated in Moscow as long as he suppresses any dissent among the Chechen people -- by any means he chooses -- and makes sure they never commit crimes in the rest of Russia.
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