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.