Chechnya, like many other modern-day republics of the Russian Federation, has experienced desolation of highland villages and an outflow of people — mostly young people — to the cities in the plains. People commonly say that they leave their ancestral villages in search of a ‘better life’. Reality often falls short of migrants’ expectations, however, because even the republic's largest city, Grozny, with its shiny skyscrapers, often fails to provide them what they’re looking for.
During the active phase of the wars in Chechnya, virtually all Chechen villages were densely populated. In an attempt to save their lives, people fled from the hostilities and Russian military forces that enjoyed impunity. Only the most stubborn, or those who tried to save their homes from plundering and looting, stayed in the cities.
Many such people were killed or wounded as a result of shelling or targeted killings. Many families lost their breadwinners overnight.
The villages took in anyone who was fleeing the wars in the traditional spirit of Caucasus hospitality. People were accommodated in schools, kindergartens, and private buildings.
The people from the cities marvelled at their generosity and the abundance of food on the tables. All the food came from local farmsteads, including meat, which mountain folk in the republic boast of eating three times a day.
The situation is radically changing
Some 10–15 years ago the majority of Chechens lived in a village, but the shift towards urban living has taken place rapidly. As a rule, villages have large plots of land, sometimes stretching to half a hectare. This cultivated land was enough to feed several families. In addition, people kept various livestock: chickens, geese, ducks, sheep and cows. All this made Chechen families self-sufficient, or at least less dependent on the state.
Agriculture has been preserved in the highlands, which are isolated from cities, but in settlements within a 50 kilometre radius of Grozny, many of the gardens have become overgrown with weeds.
Some families cultivate small pieces of land of two square metres, to plant parsley, dill, and green onions. The remaining land has become fallow and the number of domestic animals traditionally kept by Chechen families has decreased. If before, each Chechen family kept at least two cows providing year-round dairy products, nowadays few know how to milk a cow. The dark side of urbanisation has reached Chechen villages as well.
‘A person must hold onto their roots’
The majority of mountain folk now live on the plains. After adapting to city life, they can no longer imagine themselves in a rural environment. The older generation is displeased with this situation. The elderly believe that the soul of the nation has disappeared. Children’s laughter has vanished from the villages.
“Without people, this is just land, like anywhere else. It is people who fill a territory with meaning and purpose. The current trend is bad. People leave their native places,” Vakha Musayev, a 70-year-old resident of a village in Shatoy District told OC Media.
According to Musayev, young people leave their villages in the hopes of getting rich and providing an education for their children. He doesn’t like this state of affairs.
“A person must hold onto their roots. Without this, their children will turn into people without a clan and tribe, if they lose contact with their native places,” the old man sighed.
Movldi Aybuyev, 52, lived most of his life in one of the villages in Chechnya's Urus-Martan district. He only attended eight years of school and has worked with cattle since childhood. He knows a lot about horses and prides himself on his vaulting skills. In 2004, he received 350,000 roubles ($6,150) in compensation for the destruction of his house during the war. He bought a car and rented a flat in Grozny, which he had only previously visited a couple of times in his life.
He liked his new life in the capital. When he ran out of money, he began to work as a taxi driver, even though his car had already started to become rusty by that time.
In his home village, he has half a hectare of fertile land, all overgrown with weeds. In better times, when his parents were alive, the land offered a large crop of potatoes and garlic. The money earned by selling these was enough.
But now, Aybuyev says that agriculture is hard work and that he wants to have some pleasure in life. He doesn’t mind that he must pay for literally everything in the city. That’s how he carries on living, waiting to be hired under the table.
It is partially the fault of systemic corruption that people choose to leave their villages for cities.
In the cities, a person can be registered as having a disability for a year, or even for life. A bribe of 15,000–₽20,000 roubles ($260–$350) is enough to secure such a status that can guarantee a stable income. If all family members are registered as disabled, the allowance is high enough to never work physically again. But there is no such state programme to support people living in mountainous regions.
Not everyone wants to live in the city
At the same time, some retain a fondness for their rural pasts. Physician and therapist Liza Asuyeva recalls the time when she and her mother and brother lived in the village and the land they lived off could feed their whole family.
“One year, we planted potatoes on our small piece of land of 400 square metres. We managed to collect 21 sacks of high-quality potatoes. We also had garlic, onions, and beans. We had chicken and ducks. We used to sell eggs to our neighbours, who had no chicken, but many children. Mum also turned one room into a nursery school for our neighbours’ children. We had money and we could buy a car, we could buy anything we wanted. Of course, it was hard to work the land. Mum used to wake up early in the morning to remove Colorado beetle’s larvae from the potatoes’ petals. She never used any pesticides,” Asuyeva says of her happy childhood.
As the flow from the villages to the cities increases, there is also a trickle in the other direction. Wealthy businessmen and government officials consider it prestigious to build huge palaces in their ancestral villages, so as to visit them occasionally and host barbecues for numerous guests against a backdrop of towering mountains. They look down from their balconies at the empty houses and once densely populated land, now overgrown with weeds, whose owners left in search of a better life.