Tears for Grozny

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 January, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 January, 2000, 12:00am

My childhood memories of Grozny are of trams. Every 10 minutes a tram would rumble up the hill from town, clanging its bell as it approached our house on Pavel Musorov Street in Oktaybrsky District. I can still hear its wheels screeching and protesting as it laboured along the poplar-lined street from the junction. My younger sister and I always stopped playing when one of the crowded red trams halted, to see who got off.

Every summer evening our elderly Ukrainian neighbour, Polya, who kept a silver-framed icon of the Virgin Mary in a corner of her living room, would return with her empty buckets, having sold her gladioli at the market.

Our Russian neighbour Olya would also arrive home, and then my aunts and cousins and grandmother Sonya who lived next door. We would run and greet my father Stanislav when he came in his car, a big blue Volga sedan, with a metal deer on the bonnet, poised as if about to leap. It was the only car in the street and the envy of our neighbours. I loved sitting on the front bench seat beside my father, licking an ice cream, when we went for drives into town.

Grozny in the 1960s was a tranquil Caucasian town with boulevards and riverside benches where one could watch the muddy waters of the Sunzha River running by. It had a big square with grey Soviet-style buildings housing the local government. As children we liked the idea of our town being called Grozny, as it means threatening or menacing; maybe because we thought it made other people respect us. We sometimes rhymed it with the word gryazny which means dirty. It was an oil town with three big refineries and the air was often polluted.

Sometimes we went for outings into the hills, where the oil derricks nodded like giant clockwork toys, and jets of burning fuel roared into the air.

We had long, pleasant picnics with shiskebabs in the oak and beech groves beside the rushing waters of the River Terek. We searched for wild asparagus and damsons, and in spring for snow drops in the grassy meadows.

Coming back in the dusk the pillars of fire cast an unearthly light over the fields, and I was always glad to get home. My father built our house in Grozny by himself, though uncles and cousins and neighbours all came to lend a hand in putting up the red brick walls, fitting the doors, and painting the carved window frames. It had three bedrooms, a dining room, a bathroom and a living room, all with shiny dark-red hardwood floors. The dining room was hung with carpets and furnished with a walnut table, always with a dish of sweets, and a sideboard with framed photographs of my parents' wedding.

I was rarely allowed into this room, except to practise on the piano. We had a television and washing machine and everything else we needed for a comfortable life. The bathroom had a proper bath and a flush toilet; most households made do with a deep pit in the corner of the back yard.

My father installed a boiler in the centre of the house which heated radiators in every room from the natural gas which was plentiful and cheap in Grozny. We had a deep cellar, in which my parents always had a stock of potatoes, pickled vegetables, walnuts and fruit, and a huge garage with windows which made it more like a big conservatory.

We actually lived outside most of the time, except in winter, in the enclosed courtyard which was edged with tulips and narcissi, and had a garden with lettuce, cucumbers, aubergines, tomatoes, herbs, raspberries, blackberries, apricots and plums.

All these grew in profusion in Grozny with its Mediterranean-like weather - hot, dry summers and only occasional snowfalls in winter. We ate at a table in the shade of a leafy vine draped over a metal trellis which produced green grapes for making sweet wine. We always ate well. We celebrated holidays and birthdays with friends and relatives.

People would come and go, and papa would propose numerous toasts in cognac to the women, and to health, happiness and long life, though nobody got drunk because the glasses were tiny.

The source of our prosperity was quite simply hard work and blat, or good contacts. My father worked during the day as a shoe-maker at the Grozny No 1 footwear factory, and he also made fine leather shoes on the side. His only indulgence was to read every word of the daily four-page newspaper, the Groznensky Rabochy (Grozny Worker). My mother Marietta had a Singer sewing machine and worked at home as a seamstress.

Her clients would come for fittings for dresses and blouses. People of all nationalities dropped by, Russians, Armenians, Ukrainians, Tatars, Jews, Chechens and Ingushes, to get measured or try on their outfits. My parents would think nothing of working late to run up some men's trousers for sale. This was the sort of bourgeois activity the Communist Party disapproved of but no one seemed to mind. We were Armenians. People expected us to make shoes and clothes and sell them.

We lived in a part of town where there were quite a few outsiders like us.

Only about a third of the 360,000 population were Chechens and Ingushes, the native Muslim people of the region. Grozny was then the capital of the autonomous republic of Checheno-Ingushetia within the Russian Federation.

It never felt like Russia however. They had their own codes and laws which took precedence over Soviet political structures and ideology. They hated the Soviet leadership and with good reason. Stalin had deported nearly 400,000 Chechens and 100,000 Ingushes to the faraway plains of Kazakhstan in February 1944, in an attempt to once and for all destroy the people who had fought Russian occupation for centuries.

In 1957 Stalin's successor Nikita Kruschev allowed the deportees to return and the main square in Grozny was named after him. But many Russian and Ukrainian families had settled in Grozny in their absence, and relations were tense with the native population, who gave first loyalty to the village clan, or teip.

The young Chechen and Ingush men who came back were simmering with rage, and some carried a hidden kinzhal, the curved Caucasian dagger. I remember my parents talking about an incident in 1958 when a young Ingush killed a Russian in a fight over a girl and angry Russians rioted for three days.

In Grozny if there was ever a fight, the Ingush or Chechen always had to win against other nationalities, and if they didn't they took revenge. We heard stories of people simply disappearing after falling foul of Chechens or Ingushes.

The returning deportees were given grants to buy back houses from settlers but they were denied the privileges they once had. They were humiliated by a statue in the town centre to General Alexei Yermolov, the Russian general who tried to wipe out the Chechens in the 19th century, and about whom Pushkin wrote the famous line: 'Bow down, Caucasus, Yermolov is coming.' The First Party Secretary and all the top jobs went to ethnic Russians. Intermarriages were taboo. If a Chechen or Ingush did marry a Russian, he or she was disinherited and cursed. There were only a few Chechens among my classmates at School No 3, and they kept to themselves.

As an Armenian I always felt wary of them, but generally speaking the Armenians in Grozny got on well with other nationalities. Most, like my father's family, had lived there since before the deportations.

In fact my father's best friend was an Ingush whom we called Uncle Bashir, a proud man who wore a tall grey lambskin hat called the papakha, and had 11 children. He had a prayer room full of carpets in his big house which felt to me like a mansion. He and his friends worshipped there as Grozny's mosques had all been closed by the communists. The walls of his dining room were painted with big greenish leaves tinged with gold. When we were invited for dinner, his wife and the children ate in the living quarters at the back, though they came to talk after we had eaten.

Uncle Bashir's wife was always glancing out the window in case a relative dropped by and found her talking to infidels. Like most native women she dressed in fashionable fabrics and kept her head covered with a scarf.

The children were very respectful. When an older boy walked into the room, the younger ones immediately got up. Most Russians had no friends among the Chechens or Ingushes, who they often called insultingly zveri, meaning beasts, and indeed they also sometimes lumped all Caucasian people together, including us Armenians, as chyornye, or blacks.

Grozny was my home town but I did not quite belong there. I was always conscious of being Armenian. We left Grozny when I was a teenager to live in another part of Russia but I returned every summer to stay with my Aunt Lena.

The last time was in May 1991. By then the town was in a political ferment and there was much talk of declaring independence. I saw pictures of Iraq's President Saddam Hussein on car windows. The mosques had been reopened and the airport named after Sheikh Mansur, a Chechen fighter who slaughtered Russians in 1785. On my last day, cousins and aunts and uncles came for a big open-air dinner in the courtyard. They spoke about moving away soon.

Traditionally Christian Armenians have no business in a Muslim territory when trouble is brewing. That night as I lay in bed I heard automatic gun fire in the distance. Within six months practically every one of the 26,000 Armenians in Grozny had packed their belongings, sold their houses - if lucky - and fled. My Aunt Lena, desperately unhappy, and my relatives went to start a new life in southern Russia.

Her house and the house my father built is almost certainly smashed to pieces now, along with the tram lines and Uncle Bashir's mansion and the lives of so many people with whom I grew up.

Zhanna Suvorova now lives in Beijing 75 35 25 25 30 15 10 5 As Russian forces continue their blitz of the Chechen capital, Zhanna Suvorova remembers a cosmopolitan city in tranquil times


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Tears for Grozny

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