“The KGB was a Funny Bunch of Assholes”

The photo above was taken a few minutes after our host, an old Chechen man in a skullcap whom I will call Ali, had finished telling us a story that was probably apocryphal, but it really doesn’t matter. We were sitting in Ali’s yard, at a plastic picnic table under an open sky, and the story he told was about how Lev Tolstoy, who was almost as depraved a gambler as Dostoevsky, had lost his estate to a Chechen in a game of cards. The Chechen’s name, allegedly, was Sado Miserbiev, and the story about him began like this:

“He was an aphorist, that Miserbiev, and a cardsharp.”

Then it continued. “We were in Tula once, on a Sunday, and we went to Yasnaya Polyana , where we found a woman giving tours of Tolstoy’s property, showing people this and that, the house, the land. At one place we sat down on a bench to take a break, and I asked her, ‘Why don’t you tell the tourists the story about Sado Miserbiev?’ So she went a little pale, this woman, and then she said, ‘Yes, Lev Nikolaevich had a lot of Chechen friends.’ So I understood that she knew about the card game, and I also understood that I would get in trouble for being a smartass. And sure enough, when I get home, I’m called into the local KGB office in Grozny [the capital of Chechnya] and the officer says to me, ‘So, you’ve been going around saying that Tolstoy lost his property in a game of cards. Where did you learn that from?’

“So I say, ‘What, you don’t believe it?’

“And he says, ‘What do you mean I don’t believe it? I know it.’ And we had a good laugh. The KGB was a funny bunch of assholes. They were hard intellectuals. They knew things.”

There was a tiny pause in the story after that, just enough to get a word in before another story began, so I asked if we could take a picture of the food for Roads & Kingdoms. Nobody seemed to understand.

Aside from a stern injunction for us to eat the meat with our hands, there had not been any talk about the food. The point of the evening, as far as I could understand, was to tell stories about the exploits of the wily Chechen race. The food merely set the rhythm for the conversation but did not deserve to become its subject, let alone the subject of photography.

The tiny nation of Chechnya has not had much time in its history to develop anything you could call a cuisine

In retrospect this makes a lot of sense. Between fighting off the Turks, the Mongols, the Tatars and the Russians, the tiny nation of Chechnya, which is probably the most war-prone of the perpetually warring nations of the Caucasus, has not had much time in its history to develop anything you could call a cuisine. Their staples seem designed for preparation in the context of guerrilla warfare, over a fire in the mountains, using ingredients and tools that are easily pillaged, scavenged or carried on a man’s back. They are eaten for sustenance, not gastronomical exultation, and there isn’t even a consensus on what the signature dish is called. The variations I heard were galnesh, galvash and the Russified word galushki. But most of the Chechens I talked to simply referred to it as natsionalnoe blyudo, meaning, in Russian, national dish.

It consists of three parts. Not counting the fierce sauce that Ali’s wife served of homemade, fatty sour cream and raw garlic (which clung to the palate for days), there is the meat, usually beef, which is boiled in a cauldron with salt and garlic until it is ready to fall off the bone. (There is no point asking about the cut. The entire animal had apparently been hacked into fist-sized pieces.) Then there are the dumplings, usually made from cornflour, which are pinched into the shape of a toddler’s finger and boiled in the cauldron of broth.

And finally there is the broth, which by the end of this process is so thick with liquified garlic and fat and tiny flecks of dough that if you let it cool for a few minutes it turns into a kind of jelly. While it’s hot, you are meant to sip it from a mug.

Everybody drank vodka, and everybody more or less got along

Although the younger Chechens at the table abstained from the meal’s final element—vodka—there was plenty of it, which is why I decided not to give Ali’s real name. Vodka is sort of taboo among Chechens these days, but somewhere in his garage, Ali seemed to have many cases of old, dusty bottles of Stolichnaya, dated to the early 1990s, when vodka was just about the only residue left over from the Soviet mantra of “friendship of the peoples.” Everybody drank it, and everybody more or less got along. But then the wars began, and Islam started pushing vodka out, until it became harder to find a bottle than a Kalashnikov in Chechnya. The older men still drink it, because they grew up drinking it. But the younger ones now turn up their noses, just as they did when Ali started telling the following story:

“We were at a banquet once,” he said, “a fine big banquet in the Caucasus, and an Ossetian sits down on the toastmaster’s bench and says, ‘Well, since you all unanimously voted for me to be the toastmaster, I will accept the position.’ Everybody laughs, nobody stops him. But all night he goes telling one story after another in his toasts about what belongs to the Ossetians. ‘The great river Don,’ he says, ‘it’s Ossetian.’ The river Dnestr and the plains and the mountains around it—Ossetian. He gets all the way to France and England, it’s all Ossetian.

“Finally someone says to him, ‘Listen, we have a room full of Chechens here, why don’t you break a little piece off for us?’ He doesn’t hear a word. The Ossetians own it all.

“Next morning, we come into his hotel room when he’s still asleep, put two bottles of champagne under his bed and wake him up. His head is swollen like a melon, his eyes red, his brain pounding. So we pour him a glass of champagne. He gulps it down, regains the capacity of speech and asks for another one. So we first say to him, ‘Hey, what’s all that stuff you were saying last night about Ossetian lands?’ He starts fuming. Yelling this and that. By mid-morning he had been given both bottles, but Chechnya once again controlled the Caucasus.”

This initiated a long discussion of the city we were in, Khasavyurt. It is technically in the neighboring region of Dagestan, but if you ask a Chechen, it is theirs. The Second Chechen War began in part because of this. In 1999, during Chechnya’s brief run at de facto independence from Russia, a few of its warlords invaded Dagestan to get “their land” back, and they came within a few kilometers of Khasavyurt before they were repelled by the Russian air force. By the middle of the following year, Chechnya was again under Russian rule, but that did not stop its extraterritorial ambitions. Just in the past year, the Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov has twice made claims on the land of neighboring Ingushetia, telling its president that if he could not keep control on his patch of the Caucasus, Kadyrov would send his men to “do it for him.” Eventually, last September, the Kremlin envoy to the Caucasus told both sides to stop “publicly insulting each other” and things calmed down a bit. But I doubt it will be for long.

Ali’s wife kept bringing out those trays of meat and broth until none of us could move

The next story we heard from Ali took place in the Hermitage Museum of what was then Leningrad. “There is a hall of fame of all the greatest Russian Generals there,” he said. “And once I was there with my friend Mogamed and I went in there to have a look. All the Generals were there, this one and that one, from 1812 and so on, and we’re looking around for our man, the Chechen General, for Alexander Chechensky, and he’s not there. We look this way, we look that way, nothing. So we call over the curator and Magomed starts yelling, ‘Where is Alexander Chechensky!’ She looks around and says, Excuse me, this and that, and we realize she knows, she is ashamed that he’s been left off the wall.

So Magomed starts lacing into her. And I’m getting his back, because it’s an outrage! So they call the head of the Hermitage over, the famous Jew, the brilliant historian, I forget his name. Long story short, we have a talk, and when I get back home to Grozny, guess who’s waiting for me. You got it. The KGB.”

There were other, more winding stories after that, punctuated from time to time with the appearance of Ali’s wife, who kept bringing out those trays of meat and broth until none of us could move. For a long time we talked about the mass deportation of Chechens in the 1940s and the their wars against Russia in the 1990s. Those stories were less proud and more plaintive, cut through with a kind of melancholy that seemed out of character for Ali. But by that point, maybe it was just the vodka talking; the Chechens who abstained were silent.

Simon Shuster
Simon Shuster is Time Magazine's Moscow correspondent. Follow him on Twitter at @shustry.
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