MOSCOW — There have been many times of late when it seemed that Russia was being dragged back toward the darkest corners of its history. Last week, for instance, in the northern republic of Komi, local officials reportedly burned all college books published with the support of the Soros Foundation, which promotes education as a vital component of democracy. But on this cold Monday morning, suddenly the sense of threat grew much worse.
A conflict between Russia’s liberal civil society and the leadership of Chechnya, a Muslim republic in Russia’s south, boiled over with a single very ugly tweet.
Magomed Daudov, speaker of the Chechen parliament speaker and the second-highest authority in that republic, posted a picture on his Instagram of the republic’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, holding the leash of his snarling dog “Tarzan,” an enormous Caucasian Shepherd. Next to the picture, Daudov named the dog’s potential victims: independent public figures in Russia.
The post said that Tarzan’s “fangs are itching.” In derisive language, Daudov hinted that the dog could bite opposition politician Ilya Yashin and editor-in-chief Alexei Venediktov “together with his loud Echo,” that is, Radio Echo of Moscow, and two well-known Russian human-rights activists, Lev Ponomaryov and Igor Kalyapin.
The beastly threats might sound metaphorical, but they take place in a very real and menacing context.
The investigation of the murder of former Russian Vice Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov has named a Chechen mastermind behind the politician’s assassination. And Russia has a long list of political assassinations, both in the North Caucasus and on the streets of Moscow, that were performed by Chechen contract killers.
Not many in Russia could support the idea of setting dogs on people in any case, but this kind of threat hits a nerve deeply embedded in this country’s history.
“SS soldiers used Shepherds to attack victims in concentration camps, so it is a shame that the Chechen leadership uses that example,” Aleksei Venediktov told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview on Monday.
“After Nemtsov’s murder, I personally see Daudov’s post as a threat on my life,” said Venediktov. “We are aware of the real reasons behind these threats: the Chechen leadership reacted hysterically to Echo of Moscow’s reports on Nemtsov’s murder, and to the questions that we recently addressed to President Vladimir Putin at his press conference.”
On Monday, Echo of Moscow requested additional security from its owners, Gazprom Media company. Venediktov remains in the city and continues going to work, but he does not walk anywhere without bodyguards.
“Every head of every Russian law enforcement agency is informed about the threats we have received from the Chechen leadership,” Venediktov told The Daily Beast. “We hope that the head of the Investigative Committee of Russia, Alexander Bastrykin, will ask President Putin why officials threatening a chief editor of a federal media are still holding their posts.”
For the first time in Russia’s modern history, Moscow officials and parliament members demanded that law enforcement push back and prosecute Chechen leader Kadyrov and remove him from his position.
Kadyrov, who last April ordered his police to shoot officers from other parts of Russia, triggered the conflict last week by using the language associated in Russia with Stalin-era repressions. Kadyrov posted a statement on an official Internet website, saying that critics of Vladimir Putin’s politics “should be regarded as enemies of the people and traitors.” Moscow journalist and civil activist Anton Krasovsky said that, ironically, because Kadyrov is so unpopular in most of Russia, his threats “helped to legitimize Russian liberal civil society.”
The language of repression used by the Chechen leadership has drawn harsh criticism from officials, including Putin’s ombudswoman, Ella Pamfilova, who referred to the Chechen leader’s behavior as a “disservice to Putin.”
Parliament deputy Maksim Reznik told Kommersant newspaper that “the head of the Chechen republic is publicly calling for anti-constitutional actions. That should mean his resignation, at a minimum.”
A local deputy from the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, Konstantin Senchenko, wrote in a post on Facebook that Kadyrov was “Russia’s shame,” with only four years of school education and an Islamist guerrilla’s past.
Senchechenko was praised for his courage as a free-thinking politician; but soon enough he was “convinced” to say he was sorry by a number of Chechens calling him, including Buvaisar Saitiyev, a three-time Olympic champion in martial arts.
The image of the Chechen leader sicking his dog on his victims did not come out of nowhere. A decade ago Kadyrov built a private zoo next to his luxurious residence in the town of Gudermes, where he kept lions, bears, tigers, and other animals.
The zoo also had a big cage with Kadyrov’s favorite dogs, which he proudly described as “fearless fighters.”
In 2009 the famous Russian human-rights activist Natalia Estemirova told reporters a story about a teenage boy, a brother of a guerrilla, who Kadyrov’s police threatened to put in a cage with his dogs, so the boy would tell where his brother was hiding. (Later in 2009, Estemirova was abducted and killed.)
Is the Kremlin going to allow Stalin-era repression? Will official be allowed to act like criminals in Russia?
Igor Bunin, president of the Center for Political Technologies, tells The Daily Beast that such idealistic concerns are not Vladimir Putin’s priority at the moment: “The Kremlin started this mechanism of dividing the society into ‘patriots’ and ‘fifth column’ during the Crimea crisis in 2014, and now this mechanism is moving by inertia with local officials inventing all sorts of schizophrenic ideas,” said Bunin. “The president’s priority is to finish the conflict with Ukraine, at least, and that does not seem to be working out. The West’s economic sanctions are his biggest headache. There’s no time to think about what to do with the internal conflicts.”