Tag Archives: Chechnya

Red Thistle: The Rhythm of Life in the Caucasus

Davide Monteleone traces the genesis of his new book of photographs, Red Thistle, to 2007, when he heard about a film festival going on in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. At the time, Chechnya had been locked down for nearly a decade under a special security regime. Known as the KTO, the Russian acronym for “counter-terrorist operation,” the regime had meant years of martial law, curfews and random searches enforced by the Russian military. Not exactly the place for something like Sundance–the region’s film festival was a fluke, a rare chance for some foreigners to have a look around, and Monteleone took it. With his companion, Lucia Sgueglia, who would end up writing the text for Red Thistle, he would sneak out of the guarded hotel to explore Grozny.

“We did this until the Russian troops would catch us and take us back,” Monteleone said. “Then we would go out again.”

What he found was a region slowly restoring the rhythm of life—a weird, entrancing, pensive rhythm—after two devastating wars with Russia fought between 1994 and 2000. After the second war, the U.N. had deemed Grozny “the most destroyed city on earth,” but with billions of dollars in postwar Russian aide, the city had been rebuilt and revived. Over the next five years, Monteleone would return to Chechnya and the surrounding regions of the Caucasus Mountains as often as once a month.

“A lot of work had been done on the wars and the human rights abuses,” he said. “We wanted to study everyday life.”

In 2008, the KTO regime was lifted in Chechnya and travel there became easier, but life was still colored by Russia’s shadow and the legacy of the Soviet Union, which ruled this predominantly Muslim region for almost 70 years. So the settings of Monteleone’s photographs—from the beat-up old Zhiguli cars to the destitute apartment blocks—have a distinctly Soviet texture, a drab, heavy latticework that seems to press against the people inside it. Smiles are not common on the faces in his photos, but they seem to have a stubborn glow amid the grayness that surrounds them.

A common theme, predictably, is death, which is so insistent that it approaches a dulled ubiquity. If there is a kind of music to life in the Caucasus, mortality is its drumbeat in Monteleone’s work. In one frame, a woman in a black headscarf hurries along the sidewalk, not seeming to notice a stream of blood flowing toward her from a bull that was slaughtered in the street. There are weddings and funerals, and both seem to occasion equal measures of melancholy and warmth. At one wake in Chechnya, a group of men perform the Dhikr, an Islamic ritual which, in the local Sufi tradition, involves hours of rhythmic dancing and chanting until the men fall into a collective trance.

“You know that you’re in Russia,” says Monteleone. “But at the same time, life is structured in such a way that you feel closer to Persia or the Middle East.”

That is part of the duality of the Caucasus, which remains a world between worlds. The ongoing insurgency against Russian rule creeps in to remind you that the war goes on—a house stands demolished in one frame after Russian tanks moved in for a counter-insurgency strike—but there is also reconciliation: a group of men from one family walk down a mountain toward a mosque, where they resolve a blood feud with another family that had caused generations of strife. The overall picture is sad but not despondent, and there is resilience in almost every frame.

The unifying image of The Red Thistle comes from the opening scene in Lev Tolstoy’s novella Hadji Murat, which begins with a man trying to pluck a crimson thistle from a ditch in the Caucasus mountains. The thistle fights back, stabbing his hand with its brambles, and only gives in when he has frayed the stem and mangled the flower. “What energy and tenacity!” the man thinks. “With what determination it defended itself, and how dearly it sold its life.”

Simon Shuster is TIME’s Moscow reporter.

Davide Monteleone is a photographer with the VII agency. See more of his work here. Monteleone’s latest book, Red Thistlewas recently released by Dewi Lewis publishing.

The Wrestlers of Chechnya: Photographs by Yuri Kozyrev

In 1994, when Russia invaded the breakaway region of Chechnya, Yuri Kozyrev, then a freelance photographer, captured some of the most iconic images of the ensuing war. It was too dangerous at the time to live in the Chechen capital of Grozny, which faced heavy Russian bombardment. So he and a group of other reporters (including Marie Colvin, who was killed this year while covering the siege of the Syrian city of Homs) took up residence at a kindergarten called Solnyshka (Sunshine), in the nearby town of Khasavyurt. Lying on the border between Chechnya and the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan, this town of 130,000 suffered relatively little damage during the war, so journalists, as well as some of the Chechen rebels, used it as a place to rest and resupply before heading back into the war zone.

(For daily coverage of the 2012 Games, visit TIME’s Olympics blog)

In June, Kozyrev returned to Khasavyurt to photograph how the town—and its conflict—have evolved. Although heavy fighting ended with the Russian conquest of Chechnya in 2000, the war left behind an Islamist insurgency that Russia still struggles to quell. On an almost daily basis, rebels inspired by a radical sect of Sunni Islam called Salafism continue to clash with security forces in the region, costing hundreds of lives every year. In Khasavyurt, the Russian effort to counter their influence still scars the unpaved streets. In most neighborhoods, gutted homes mark the sites of “special operations,”the commando raids that use heavy artillery to flush out suspected insurgents. But the town has also been shaped by the central element of Russian soft power in the region: the development of wrestling schools. Much like soccer in the favelas of Sao Paolo and basketball in Harlem, wrestling in Khasavyurt is meant to serve as an inoculation against violence, or at least a distraction from it, by offering the local boys an outlet for their frustrations that does not involve ”going to the woods,” the Russian slang for joining the insurgency.

Every year, Moscow pumps roughly a million dollars into Khasavyurt’s five wrestling academies, which have produced an impressive crop of champions. In the past four Olympic cycles, freestyle wrestlers from Khasavyurt have brought home a total of eight gold medals, along with at least 12 world championship titles and countless trophies in national and European tournaments. At the Olympic Games in London, at least two wrestlers from Khasavyurt will compete to affirm the town’s nickname—The Foundry of Champions—which is scrawled on green signs near the central bazaar, showing the legendary Buvaysar Saytiev in the middle of a grapple.

During his visit in June, Kozyrev’s photography focused on Saytiev and his younger brother Adam, who have won four Olympic gold medals in freestyle wrestling between them. For more than a decade, the Saytiev brothers, who are ethnic Chechens, have served as somewhat reluctant poster boys for the notion of pacification through sport. Their wrestling schools have inspired thousands of young men from Khasavyurt to channel their strength into wrestling rather than rebellion, and Kozyrev spent much of his time photographing them train for the London Olympics. But away from the gyms, members of the Khasavyurt wrestling community revealed that the idea of sport as an antidote to extremism is not quite working out as planned. Some of the town’s leading athletes have started “going to the woods” in recent years, and an alarming number of them have been killed as insurgents during shootouts with police. No longer a haven from conflict, the wrestling schools of Khasavyurt, whose students are often as young as 8, have become recruiting ground for Islamists. As Kozyrev concluded after his visit: “This is a town that remains at war.”

Read more about the Chechen wrestlers of Khasavyurt on TIME.com

Simon Shuster is TIME’s Moscow reporter.

Yuri Kozyrev is a contract photographer for TIME and was named the 2011 Photographer of the Year in the Pictures of the Year International competition.

The Girls of Chechnya

In 2010, when she was working for a news agency in Moscow, Diana Markosian asked to be sent to Chechnya. The photographer, who is Russian but studied in the United States, was 20 years old and curious about the history of the embattled region.

“They wouldn’t send me so I decided to go by myself,” she remembers. “Grozny became my destination and later became my home.”

Markosian went back repeatedly after that first visit and soon became a specialist in covering a region where, she says, many of her colleagues don’t want to go. She moved to Chechnya last November to live there full-time. But, she says, her close relationship with the area doesn’t mean that it’s not a risky place to live and work—kidnappings are frequent, she says—or that such risk does not affect her photographs. Although Russian leaders declared the region normalized and peaceful three years ago today, following more than a decade of wars against rebels, life is still fraught. They may not appear in the frames, but Chechen authorities are the unseen presence in the work shown in this gallery, a personal project through which Markosian addresses the lives of girls growing up in Chechnya.

“It’s one thing to come here for a week like I used to do. It’s another to start living here, and not only hear what these women are going through but actually experience it yourself,” she says.

Markosian says that Chechnya has experienced a wave of Islamicization since the collapse of the Soviet Union: religious dress codes are mandatory, young (and polygamous) marriages are frequent and gender roles are increasingly conservative. The president, Ramzan Kadyrov, has said publicly that women are the property of their husbands. And at the same time, high unemployment has meant that many young women who are already becoming mothers still live with their own parents.

For Markosian, this has meant that—after she was told by security officers that her belt full of lenses made her look like a suicide bomber—she carries a handbag rather than the photographer’s gear bag to which she was accustomed, and that she has gotten used to being questioned or having her photographs deleted by officers. “As a regular citizen I don’t feel danger,” she says, “but just because I’m doing something a little out of the ordinary, especially for a woman, I’m looked at more carefully.”

It has also changed her working process. Because of what she says is widespread but justified distrust, people are wary of being shown doing anything that could be perceived as unusual. Something as seemingly innocent as a photograph of a woman smoking a cigarette could have dire consequences. The fear of being different has been a particular obstacle for photographing teenagers, as their parents are worried about what might happen if their children are seen as nonconforming.

But Markosian says that, by spending weeks with her subjects before taking a single photograph, she has been able to gain the access necessary for the project. And, in doing so, she says she has found these women to be a mirror for Chechnya as a whole. “That entire idea of a generation building itself and the resilience these girls have really motivated me,” she says. “They are trying to make something of themselves at the same time that this region is trying to build after almost two decades of war.”

Diana Markosian is a photographer based in Chechnya. See more of her work here.

Photographer #432: Eric Bouvet

Eric Bouvet, 1961, France, started his career in 1981 after studying Art and Graphic Industries in Paris. During the 80’s he worked as a staff photographer at Gamma agency. In 1990 he launched his freelance career and has since been an independant photojournalist. He has traveled extensively to many conflict zones as Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Somalia, former Yugoslavia and very recently Libya. He has covered the gruesome war in Chechnya for a long period and has visited Afghanistan a dozen of times since 1986, witnissing the various wars the country has suffered. His images have an intimate and up-close character. His work has been published in numerous magazines as Time, Life, Newsweek, Stern and the New York Times magazine. He has worked with a variety of NGO’s and charities as Medecins Sans Frontieres and the International Red Cross. His work has received several awards amongst which are five World Press Awards. The following images come from the series The Beginning (Libya), Uzbin Valley (Afghanistan) and Russian Commandos – Chechnya.

Website: www.ericbouvet.com

Photographer #358: Christopher Morris

Christopher Morris, 1958, USA, is a founding member of VII photo agency and a highly versatile photographer. In the first 20 years of his career he was a war photographer, covering conflicts in former Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Panama amongst many others. In Chechnya he realised he wanted to change his course which led to an 8 year assignment for Time Magazine as a White House photographer following the Bush administration. During the Bush-era, he published his first monograph called My America. The book is a personal journey into a Republican America. The change from war photography, being very uncontrolled and spontaneous, to the White House photographer, being very controlled and staged, shifted his photography into a new direction which includes staged, documentary and portrait work. Currently Christopher has even ventured into fashion photography. He is a regular contributor for the Italian fashion magazine AMICA. The following images come from the series Obama’s Burden, My America and Chechen War.



Website: www.christophermorrisphotography.com

Photographer #358: Christopher Morris

Christopher Morris, 1958, USA, is a founding member of VII photo agency and a highly versatile photographer. In the first 20 years of his career he was a war photographer, covering conflicts in former Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Panama amongst many others. In Chechnya he realised he wanted to change his course which led to an 8 year assignment for Time Magazine as a White House photographer following the Bush administration. During the Bush-era, he published his first monograph called My America. The book is a personal journey into a Republican America. The change from war photography, being very uncontrolled and spontaneous, to the White House photographer, being very controlled and staged, shifted his photography into a new direction which includes staged, documentary and portrait work. Currently Christopher has even ventured into fashion photography. He is a regular contributor for the Italian fashion magazine AMICA. The following images come from the series Obama’s Burden, My America and Chechen War.



Website: www.christophermorrisphotography.com

Photographer #329: Ziyah Gafić

Ziyah Gafić, 1980, Bosnia and Herzegovina, is a documentary photographer. Since 1999 he has traveled extensively to more than forty countries for his work. Troubled Islam is a large body of work, covering the aftermath of a number of countries. Ziyah was 12 when the war in Bosnia started. The series of essays are made in Bosnia, Palestine/Israel, Kurdistan, Iraq, Ossetia, Rwanda, Chechnya, Lebanon and Afghanistan. He focuses on the aftermath of war and violence in the daily life of people, capturing the determination of people trying to carry on with their lives. All countries consist of a significant Muslim community. He states that; “for someone who went through war and personal loss empathy is essential. If readers do not emphasize with the subject in my photographs then I have failed.” The following images come from Troubled Islam: Damaged People, Damaged Landscape (Afghanistan), The Land Without People for People Without Land (Palestine/Israel) and Tales from the Dark Valley (Bosnia).


Website: www.ziyahgafic.ba

Photographer #299: Guillaume Herbaut

Guillaume Herbaut, 1970, France, is a photojournalist and documentary photographer with a vast amount of projects and stories in his portfolio. He has been to the region where the Chernobyl disaster happened in 1986 on many occasions. He covered stories on the aftermath, the ghost town of Pripyat which is located only 3 kilometers from the power plant, the nouveau riche coming to build vacation villa’s just 200 meters from the forbidden zone, partying youngsters in the third contaminated zone and many others. He also focused on Hiroshima and Urakami, the Japanese places where the US dropped their atomic bombs. Guillaume has traveled the world to cover often harsh stories, from Chechnya to Mexico and from Georgia to Iran. He has released several books amongst which is La Zone, a sensory journey into the heart of Chernobyl’s exclusion zone. The following images come from the series Chernobyl Riviera, Urakami and Russia: The Slavic Union.

Website: www.guillaume-herbaut.com