GROZNY -- The last time I visited the Chechen capital, in 2007, it seemed most of the city had been already rebuilt.
It was just before national parliamentary elections, in which Chechnya -- only recently bombed to ruins during two bitter wars for independence from Moscow -- would deliver 99 percent of its votes to the main pro-Kremlin party, United Russia.
The party's only platform was support for the man who'd launched the second of those wars, then-President Vladimir Putin.
But I was wrong to think the city's reconstruction was nearly finished. A year and a half on, Grozny has been still further transformed. It now boasts Europe's largest mosque, surrounded by acres of neatly tended gardens.
Expensive cars speed down the main thoroughfare, Putin Prospekt, which is lined with cafes bearing French and Italian names, a sushi restaurant, and a branch of a Moscow luxury shopping mall. Ongoing construction is turning Grozny into a hodgepodge of renovated neoclassical buildings, cheap, vinyl-sided apartment blocks, and squat, traditional Chechen red-brick houses.
Young couples and mothers with their children stroll down the main streets in the evening.Answer Always The Same
Eating ice cream and laughing with her friends at an outdoor cafe next to a brand-new fountain in one of the city's central squares, Asya Tashtamirova says venturing outside after dusk used to be mortally dangerous. Now, she says, life is better than it's ever been.
"After work, we can come to places like this to sit and talk with friends," she says. "Before, we just couldn't do that because the situation here was so different."
"Why do I need my portraits everywhere? I have all the authority I need," says Kadyrov. This poster greets vistors at Grozny's airport.
Ask anyone who's responsible for Grozny's transfiguration from moonscape to Russia's newest city, and you'll get the same answer. Boris Muzakayev, a clean-shaven, middle-aged man sitting one table down from Tashtamirova, echoes the unanimous opinion.
"Ramzan Kadyrov is one of the most honorable people in Russia," Muzakayev says. "He's responsible for bringing order here. He's able to control the situation here 100 percent."
Large, Big Brother-like pictures of the stocky 32-year-old leader -- with his trademark close-cropped beard, bristling crewcut, and loosened tie -- hang everywhere in Chechnya, along with signs of praise and thanks. But the veneer of devoted optimism often wears thin. Soon after praising Kadyrov, Tashtamirova admits that fear still permeates Chechnya.
"The only people who aren't afraid are the ones who either don't know anything or never go out," she says. "We're frightened for our loved ones, for you, for ourselves. The fear is always there."'Just Like Stalin's Time'
Shootings and bombings by the handful of separatist rebels remaining in Chechnya have been on the rise since Moscow declared its decade-long counterterrorism operation over earlier this year. But it's the Chechen authorities, not the militants, who are believed to be behind most of the ongoing abductions and killings, and, most recently, the burning of houses belonging to relatives of suspected separatists.
Next to the manicured lawns of the city's new mosque, one young man repeats the universal praise of Kadyrov, then changes tone as soon as my microphone is turned off.
"No one here is going to talk to you about politics," he says. "It's just like Stalin's time."
An official in Kadyrov's administration who also didn't want to be identified says that's no surprise for a population still traumatized by war.
"Everyone here has known only war since 1994," he says.
Wounded by shrapnel in the 1990s, the official spent months paralyzed and unable to talk.
"Everyone here has lost family members and friends," he says. "The only thing we wish for is to be able to leave our houses in the morning and return in the evening still living and breathing."Lions Prowl
I'd traveled to Grozny to interview Kadyrov
along with two correspondents for RFE/RL's Russian Service. Summoned at 9 p.m. to Kadyrov's massive compound in his hometown Tsenteroi, near Chechnya's second city, Gudermes, we sped the 45 minutes there in a minivan sent by his press service.
A tidy street in modern Grozny
Outside Grozny, Chechnya remains very poor. Still, we pass many newly rebuilt village houses before arriving at Kadyrov's main gate, the first of several along a private drive festooned with strings of colored lights. The entrance is heavily guarded by soldiers of his private army, known as the Kadyrovtsy.
Inside the complex, past a horseracing track and an artificial pond, two gold-colored lion statues guard the entrance to the residential compound. Inside, real lions prowl in cages, part of Kadyrov's extensive zoo of rare animals and birds. I can't help fixating on the rumor that the compound also houses a prison in which Kadyrov has tortured and killed with his own hands.
Kadyrov isn't ready when we arrive. So we wait in a small stone building housing his press service until we're called to his mansion next door. Passing a sleek black Mercedes by the front door -- one of Kadyrov's vast fleet of luxury cars -- we step into a massive, marble-floored palace, lined with ornate columns and luxurious silk wallpaper.Billiards In Slippers
Kadyrov, dressed in an Armani tracksuit -- and, like everyone else in the mansion, slippers -- is playing billiards with one of his men. (See video below.) Kadyrov has been president for more than two years. But the squat bear of a man with the jovial manner of a frat boy greets us almost bashfully, as if embarrassed by the opulence of his fantasy playground. Still, he looks visibly more aged and haggard than a year-and-a-half ago. He changes into a plaid, open-necked shirt that fits tightly over his powerful frame and swaggers upstairs to a plush office. By the time we sit down, it's 2 a.m.
Kadyrov insists his only concern is for the welfare of ordinary Chechens.
"I'd lay down my life for my people," he says in brusque, heavily accented Russian.
He began the first Chechen war with very different political sympathies: then an anti-Kremlin rebel, he says he took up arms at the age of 17 because then-President Boris Yeltsin refused to negotiate with Chechnya's first separatist leader Djokhar Dudayev, preferring instead to "ruin Russia."
"The Chechen people were fully against Russia then because they set tanks on us," Kadyrov says. "Russians blessed those tanks and sent them against us as if we were German fascists. It forced us to take a stand against Russia."
At the time, the young Kadyrov was chief bodyguard for his father, Muslim imam Akhmad Kadyrov, a separatist leader who switched sides during Chechnya's second war. The Kremlin later installed the senior Kadyrov as Chechen president. Today, Ramzan Kadyrov praises Putin for "wise policies" that kept Chechnya a part of the Russian Federation.
"It's good Russia didn't let Chechnya go. If we would have been given independence, it would have been the end of our people. We would all have died," he says.
Kadyrov says remaining part of Russia was the only way to save Chechnya from destruction by foreign extremists who wanted to claim Chechnya as part of their cause. When Akhmad Kadyrov was assassinated in a bomb blast in 2004, his feared security-chief son eventually succeeded him. Kadyrov calls Putin, who appointed him, his "idol."
Rights groups say Kadyrov has brought a large measure of stability to Chechnya by enforcing a quiet terror. Last month, human rights activist Natalya Estemirova
became one of the latest of his critics to have died in an unsolved killing. On August 11, the head of a Chechen aid group and her husband were found dead
in the trunk of their car.
Grozny boasts the largest mosque in Europe
Kadyrov rivals have been gunned down in Vienna, Dubai, Moscow, and Chechnya. But Kadyrov denies all accusations he had anything to do with the murders. He also denies encouraging a cult of personality.
"Why do I need my portraits everywhere? I have all the authority I need. Why would I advertise myself?" he says. "People want to put up my portraits themselves. Take them down and put them away if you want. I don't care!"
Some believe Kadyrov's authority inside Chechnya is so great that he effectively governs the region independently of Moscow. His critics wryly note the young leader, who publically remains utterly loyal to Moscow, has achieved the kind of de facto self-rule that had eluded Chechnya's former separatist leaders.
But Kadyrov has been unable to prevail in one of his biggest disagreements with Moscow, over the right to refine oil and control its profits, even though much of Kadyrov's wealth is believed to have come from kickbacks from the region's semi-legal oil industry. 'I Believe Him'
Kadyrov denies any split with the Kremlin.
"Why would we need Rosneft or Gazprom?" he says of the state oil and gas companies that pump out Chechnya's most valuable natural resources. "We just need more money [from Moscow] to help rebuild our region's economy."
Back in Grozny the day after our interview with Kadyrov, a lawyer and former teacher who now works as a handyman -- and who also spoke on condition of anonymity -- said Chechnya was so ruined several years ago that only an authoritarian could have imposed order.
That's a common view even among some of Kadyrov's loudest critics. Journalist Kheda Saratova is planning a march in Grozny in memory of Natalya Estemirova -- a risky endeavor in a city in which even Estemirova's employer, the crusading human rights organization Memorial, has shut its doors.
But Saratova praises Kadyrov, a leader she once denounced, instead blaming the ongoing violence in Chechnya on security service officers and others whose careers depend on continued instability.
"These people are capable of killing, kidnapping, anything to show off in front of Ramzan," Saratova says. "So when Ramzan says he's trying to improve the lives of ordinary Chechens, I believe him."
Some observers believe the universal praise of Kadyrov is part of a coping mechanism among those who have lived through two devastating wars. And indeed, backing the one man who appears capable of ensuring stability may be the best way to survive. Grozny may increasingly look like any other part of Russia, but no number of shiny new buildings can mask the sense of something deeply sinister in Ramzan Kadyrov's Chechnya.