THE MAKING OF A NEW EMPIRE
Grozny, capital of Chechnya. Two years after the fierce battle for independance against the Russian army, the city is still devastated.
For hundreds of years, this region has been known as the Wild East; now some refer to it as mafiya country, where anarchy rules.
Yet it is from here that people plan the future of the Caucasus. A future, based on the old traditions of clans, on deep religious feelings, on the law of blood revenge to determine peoples obligations.
The making of a new empire is a portrait of a man and his country at a decisive moment in history. Twenty-five years ago, Khozh-Ahmed Noukhaev founded a Moscow-based underground movement, which later became known as the widely feared Chechen mafiya. To the Chechens however, it was the cradle of the liberation movement. Noukhaev fits in the long and strong Chechen tradition of the bandit-warrior. He is godfather, escaped convict, war hero, publicity manager and visionary combined in one single person.
In this film we get to know his personal story, and through him we learn about the mystical and proud, but also violent history of the Chechen people. And we get a glimpse of the future, because this region controls the oil pipes from the Caspian sea, the biggest oil reserves in the world. Therefore, also the future of the Western world is at stake.
The making of a new empire pictures a man and a world you have not seen yet.
THE BIG STORY
In the background there is The Big Story. That story started in the late eighties, with the fall of the Wall. Philosophers proclaimed "the end of history". Great ideological contradictions were supposedly a thing of the past; now we all form part of the tradition of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on progress and rational action.
No account was taken of Nationalism, with all its irrational tendencies and history, with its scepticism about tolerance, pluralism, and the Western ideals of progress. It reared its head much more fiercely than many had thought. Ten years later, with Kosovo, Bosnia and Chechnya fresh in our memories, the concept of "the end of history" can again be buried.
In Chechnya everyone knows their history. Everyone knows that for centuries they fought against oppressors; the stories are part of mythology and of history, two concepts closely linked in Chechen stories. For Chechens there is no difference between Tamurelane, Genghis Khan, Catherine the Great, Stalin and Yeltsin. They all came to exterminate the Chechens, but they were all defeated. Today's Chechens know who fought beside them in the last war, but they also know their ancestors and their clans, deported by Stalin or who took up the sword against Genghis Khan.
The Chechens know their heroes. Those are the people who have always been labelled bandits by the Russians. They have even erected statues to some of them, such as the bandit Zelim-Han in the last century, while others live on in their traditions.
Times are much less romantic and today's bandits have private armies and are known in Russia as the infamous Chechen Mafia. In the eighties the Chechens took over the Moscow underworld and have expanded it more and more. They used it to lay the foundation for their struggle for independence.
In the case of Chechnya, the Big Story has several dimensions. Chechnya is the Soviet Union's Vietnam. The independence struggle of the Chechens was answered by Russia in 1994 by a war that last two years. The capital Grozny was completely destroyed, the war took more than 60,000 lives and in the end Russia had to agree to de facto independence. The Chechens had won their "holy war". Because that is also a Big Story; in the Caucasus and far beyond growing nationalism goes hand-in-hand with a significant rise in Islamic culture. It is an explosive combination that has been ignored for many years. It is becoming increasingly clear how far that combination stretches; in August 1999, the Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev has declared a holy war against the neighbouring Dagestan, and the Russian reaction is exactly the same as in 1994: the bandits have to be punished, in two weeks the situation will be normalised. A major new war threatens in the Caucasus.
Since the last war, Chechnya has been torn by crime. Different warlords have private armies and, as Russia has reneged on its commitment to recompense the damage, the only industry flourishing in Chechnya is the kidnap industry. In the first half of 1997, official figures suggest that 1098 people were kidnapped, excluding Chechens. There have been no more statistics since, nor any contact with foreigners. In November 1998 the British telecommunications company accepted a lucrative order from government and sent four members of staff to Grozny. Despite 24-hour security, the four were kidnapped by a gang. In early December, after a failed attempt to free them, only their heads were recovered.
In this way it became difficult to get a clear picture of a country that in many ways is characteristic of "the end of history". That same country is now also become important for the future of the West. Chechnya may have won its war against Russia. This war that was a holy war for Chechnya, but in Russian minds was largely to control the only oil pipeline between the Caspian Sea (with the largest oil reserves in the world) and Black Sea. Now the Mafia also controls the pipeline. That is also a Big Story.
When I first met Khozh-Ahmed Noukhaev in July 1997 in Istanbul, I suspected that many of these Big Stories would come together in his person, but I did not have any idea about a documentary.
A journalist in London put me on the trail of Khozh-Ahmed Noukhaev, but my departure was so hasty that I only read an article about him in the plane on my way home. He was and still is the most powerful man in the Chechen Mafia, "a man you can only encounter with shaking knees". To my amazement, Noukhaev was interested in my proposal to make a documentary about it, on condition that it would also be about the people of Chechnya and their struggle.
Noukhaev invited me to come to Chechnya and I realised this was unique opportunity. With his protection, the chance of kidnapping was a lot smaller. It also struck me that Noukhaev's story was more than worth basing a documentary on.
In the eighties he had taken over the Moscow underworld while at the same time this man is regarded as a hero in is country, because he used the Mafia money first to set up an underground organisation and later to finance the war. Noukhaev was arrested several times, but always escape. He also looked like an actor playing a Mafia boss. Always wearing chic Italian suits, armed with a silver-capped walking stick, and moving around in an armoured Mercedes. A modern-day Robin Hood or just eager for power? It struck me as important question in an era that confronts us with increasing insecurity. More and figures are appearing on the political stage with very different attitudes and approaches from what we are used to. Occasionally to our amazement, but that does not make it any less real.
This story offered me the opportunity to look at the fault-lines in today's politics, but it also offered cinematographic opportunities. I had the feeling I was making an "Eastern". Chechen mountain villages, a razed capital, a Mafia boss in Armani suit, oilfields as far as the eye can see, parties with the jet-set... let the camera roll.
It did not turn out to be easy to let the camera roll. In the end a Polish crew was willing to go to Chechnya. "Don't worry, we are from Poland", was the credo of cameraman Andrzej Adamczak and soundman Lukasz Nowicki. After our first visit to Chechnya, in September 1998, where the permanent security and steadily shorter visits to locations meant we did not have enough material, I told them we would have to go back and they were enthusiastic! So, eventually, in November 1998, we reached the heart of Chechnya, in the mountains were ancient myths still live on.
We did not just film Noukhaev's story about his personal experiences, but also his project for the future: a new city, based on age-old traditions, on the structure of the clan and vendetta. He wants to complete the project, once conceived by Dochar Dudayev, the first president of Chechnya. Even before the war, he had suggested to his friend Noukhaev erecting a tall clock and in the main square with hands turning anti-clockwise.
We filmed Noukhaev's stories about the first president, who even helped him escape from a Russian prison camp, we filmed him with the second president, Zelim Han Yandarbiev, reminiscing about their days as students and we filmed him with the third, present incumbent, Aslan Mashadov, during a visit to London.
This turned into the story of Khozh-Ahmed Noukhaev, from Mafia boss to mystic visionary, filmed against the background of Chechen history.
Jos de Putter, September '99
Director and screenplay: Jos de Putter
98 min., 35 mm, colour, The Netherlands, 1999