Visit Fabulous, Bloody Grozny: Has the world’s most destroyed city recovered?
The first-time visitor to Grozny has to be reminded that, until recently, the Chechen capital was often called “the most destroyed city on Earth.” Today, Grozny rises out of the plain like the Emerald City of Oz. The famous Associated Press image of a Russian soldier lighting a cigarette from a pile of burning refuse in the middle of a blown-out street seems a world away.
Friday prayers have finished by the time I find myself standing in the forecourt of Grozny’s Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque. Based on Istanbul’s famous Blue Mosque and constructed by Turkish laborers, the Heart of Chechnya, as it’s officially known, opened four years ago and is said to be the largest mosque in Europe. My guide, Elina, and photographer, Melanie, are told that women aren’t allowed inside the main section of the building today. A sign over the taps in the ablution area informs me politely that my handgun isn’t, either. The mosque is said to be able to hold 10,000 worshipers, but only three stand inside when I cross the threshold—all uniformed members of Chechnya’s ministry of internal affairs. When I emerge after several minutes spent examining the mosque’s cupola—a gaudy derivation of the original, heavy on the bling—I find Melanie wearing her neckerchief on her head.
“I was asked to cover up while I’m here,” she says. “In any case, I’ve been getting looks.” Neither women’s hair nor women’s legs are completely invisible on Grozny’s streets: one sees an occasional woman without a headscarf, usually the same one who’s wearing a miniskirt. But both are much rarer here than elsewhere in the country.
In an upmarket clothing store, several middle-aged women and one young man sit at sewing machines, producing traditional, high-collared men’s shirts and even more conservative women’s fashion. I ask to have a button sewn back on to my jacket—it’s been loose for months—and a customer notices my accent and takes an interest. As he tries on a shirt, he takes his handgun out of his pants and rests it on one of the sewing machines.