On January 20, security forces loyal to Kremlin-backed Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov abducted the mother of lawyer and anti-torture activist Abubakar Yangulbayev in the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod and took her by force to Chechnya. She has been held since in isolation without contact with her lawyer or her family.
The case made headlines across Russia, particularly after Kadyrov ally and national parliament deputy Adam Delimkhanov on February 2 declared a "blood feud" and vowed publicly to pursue Yangulbayev's entire family "until we cut off your heads, until we kill you all." Several Chechen officials made similar declarations the same day.
The Yangulbayev case is just one example of many in recent months in which Kadyrov's agents have conducted operations inside Chechnya and in other parts of Russia that rights groups say have been aimed at abducting relatives of opposition bloggers and activists. In fact, one of the things that Yangulbayev did to earn Kadyrov's enmity was to report in December that at least 21 of his relatives in Chechnya were abducted in raids by masked men on December 23-25 in the village of Goity and the regional capital, Grozny.
In September 2020, a leader of the Chechen diaspora and a former senior Chechen official, Akhmed Zakayev, announced from self-exile in London that his two brothers and two sisters, as well as their children, had been detained in Chechnya.
In December 2021, the mother-in-law and sister-in-law of prominent self-exiled Chechen blogger Tumso Abdurakhmanov were abducted in the southern Russian city of Astrakhan and taken to Chechnya. Abdurakhmanov said they have now joined five other relatives who were detained earlier in the North Caucasus republic.
In addition to Abdurakhmanov, Chechen opposition bloggers Khasan Khalitov and Minkail Malizayev and human rights advocate Mansur Sadulayev and Aslan Artsuyev have reported the disappearances of their relatives in recent weeks.
A common thread in many of these cases seems to be the outspoken opposition Telegram channel 1ADAT, which was created in April 2020 and has provided a far-reaching platform for opposition information and propaganda. From January 21-24, Kadyrov used his own Telegram channel 10 times to criticize 1ADAT.
Battle For The Internet
Kadyrov has long used social media to promote himself and his government, as well as to attempt to smear or humiliate his opponents. According to various reports, the Chechen government has invested heavily in promoting the online presences of Kadyrov's relatives and allies, reportedly paying popular singers and other performers large sums for promotion. In October 2020, the rapper Morgenshtern reported that he'd been given 400,000 rubles ($5,230) to promote the account of one of Kadyrov's close allies.
But more recently, and particularly with the advent of 1ADAT, Kadyrov's opponents have gained a toehold on the Internet, which sociologist Yevgeny Varshaver argues is a particularly powerful tool in societies, like those of the North Caucasus, with powerful social codes of "honor" and "dishonor."
"The rituals of honor and shame take on a second life on the Internet," Varshaver told RFE/RL, "because the Internet has a vast audience and that means the stakes are higher, the wins are more substantial, and the losses are more painful. Any viral video can be seen by millions and there is no taking it back, if you don't count the second typical use of the Internet [in such societies] -- [coerced] apologies."
"It is no surprise that in societies where 'honor' is the main currency, such incidents -- in which the number of spectators is maximized -- acquire fundamental importance," he said.
The anonymous leaders of 1ADAT seem to understand this. The channel they have created has a large number of anonymous contributors, and the anonymity seems to make many of them far bolder than bloggers who write -- even from self-exile outside Russia -- under their own names.
1ADAT's anonymity also means that many of its contributors live inside Chechnya and closer to the issues and symbols that push the buttons of residents there.
According to statements attributed to 1ADAT's leaders, the channel comprises a small leadership team that makes strategic decisions and a large base of volunteer administrators and contributors. Every leader, the channel says, "has been held captive by Kadryov's forces and has endured their torture."
In terms of content, the channel is a mixture of serious reports of alleged crimes and abuses by the authorities and insulting and humorous GIFs and memes targeting Kadyrov and his associates. The latter have made the channel extremely popular among youth in the North Caucasus, many of whom are motivated to contribute themselves.
The channel also hosts many radical posts, including some expressing support for notorious terrorist field commander Shamil Basayev, who was killed in 2006, and other Chechen Islamists. The channel regularly calls for Chechnya's independence from Russia.
"For 20 years now, our people have lived as if in a concentration camp," one anonymous post read. "We don't even have the rights that animals have in law-based states. Every day someone is kidnapped, tortured, murdered. Some are raped or extrajudicially executed…. They are undermining our religion, history, and creeds."
Kadyrov has headed the region since 2007 and has been widely accused of overseeing massive human rights abuses including disappearances, torture, extrajudicial executions, the assassination of political and personal foes, and the persecution of the region's LGBT community. The government of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who steered Kadyrov into the top post in Chechnya, has ignored the evidence of abuse and refused to open any investigations.
Because of the policy of anonymity, however, 1ADAT's popularity grew slowly. In early September 2020, it had only 5,000-6,000 subscribers and most posts picked up little more than 10,000 views.
But an event that occurred on September 7, 2020, gave the channel national recognition and sent its popularity through the roof. On that day, 19-year-old Salman Tepsurkayev, who identified himself as a 1ADAT administrator, posted a video of himself naked. He stated that he apologized for his criticism of the authorities and said: "I am punishing myself." Then he sat down on a glass bottle.
Blogger Abdurakhmanov commented at the time that the video was "extraordinary even for Kadyrov's Chechnya."
It was later reported that Tepsurkayev had been abducted by Kadyrov's security agents two days earlier in the Black Sea town of Gelendzhik, hundreds of kilometers from Chechnya. In another video posted a few days later, he said he'd apologized because of a social media video in which he read verses that insulted Delimkhanov, a longtime member of the State Duma, Russia’s lower parliament house.
The story was widely covered in the national media in Russia. 1ADAT's subscription base tripled within days and its posts on the incident were viewed more than 100,000 times. Overnight, the channel became -- in Abdurakhmanov's words -- "an anti-Kadyrov brand."
Tepsurkayev's whereabouts remain unknown to this day.
In early 2021, a pro-government Telegram channel appeared called Alternativa 95 that was seemingly devoted to doing battle with 1ADAT.
"Everyone who writes comments, everyone who subscribes to 1ADAT should know -- you are being watched and your information is being recorded," the channel warned.
On July 12, 2021, a court in Grozny banned 1ADAT on the territory of the Russian Federation. The decision was not based on the channel's posts but on numerous comments in the anonymous chatrooms that called for people "to join the fight against the criminal Kadyrov regime."
There have been reports that police have been stopping people in Chechnya and checking their phones for evidence they are subscribed to 1ADAT.
After rights lawyer Yangulbayev fled Chechnya in late December, Russian media began attacking 1ADAT. The Federal News Agency (FAN), which is controlled by Kremlin-connected oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, published an article whose headline claimed 1ADAT was a Western "project to discredit Chechnya and Russia."
The next day, Alternativa 95 posted an undated video in which Yangulbayev's brother, Ibragim, claimed he was the head of 1ADAT. Ibragim Yangulbayev, who now lives abroad, has said he was abducted by Kadyrov's agents in Grozny in May 2017. He said that while in custody, he was tortured with electric shocks and strung up by his arms and legs. He was held in custody for 18 months and fled Russia as soon as he was released.
A Radicalized Future?
Despite its growing audience, 1ADAT still has far less reach than the most popular Chechen opposition bloggers, including Abdurakhmanov, who post under their own names from abroad.
Even though those bloggers write with comparative restraint, they have nonetheless been hounded, persecuted, driven into exile, threatened, and attacked by Kadyrov's supporters. In January 2021, two Chechens were convicted in Sweden of attempting to kill Abdurakhmanov. In August 2021, another Chechen was convicted of the 2020 murder in Vienna of opposition blogger Mamikhan Umarov.
The lesson for many 1ADAT contributors has been that there is no point in being restrained, and those who exercise restraint are being quickly marginalized by a flood of increasingly pointed and outrageous memes.
Declarations of blood feuds such as that made by Delimkhanov on February 2 are regularly met with an outpouring of sarcasm and anonymous calls for violence. 1ADAT has become a bellwether in the intensification of the conflict between the opposition and the authorities in Chechnya -- an online intensification that could erupt unpredictably in real life at any moment.