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Chechnya’s Students of the Koran

When Ramzan Kadyrov was appointed president of the Chechen Republic in 2007, his government embarked on a nationwide “virtue” campaign. The goal: to promote Islam and to strengthen the Chechen identity after nearly two decades of war.

It was a sharp turn for the semi-autonomous region of Russia, where under the atheist Soviet regime women were encouraged to burn their headscarves. Today, they are mandatory in all public buildings, including schools. Many girls in Chechnya are the first in three generations to cover their heads. The country now counts over 700 mosques.

The symbol of an Islamic revival, Hafiz schools, devoted to the memorization of the Koran and Islamic studies, are emerging in Chechnya. The first was opened in Kadyrov’s native village of Tsentaroi in 2010. His nephew became its first graduate and was immediately appointed director. Aishat, Kadyrov’s oldest daughter, also learned the Koran by heart and became the first woman hafiz in Chechnya.

Photo: Maxim Babenko

Today, the Chechen Republic counts five of these schools. In each of them, boys aged 10 or over study the Koran for three years. Their purpose: to pass on knowledge to other believers and combat against those who incorrectly interpret the principles of Islam. “It was hard to learn, but with Allah’s help we managed to successfully complete the study,” a graduate told me. “My parents are more delighted about it than me.”

This project was shot in two schools, one located near the Chechen capital of Grozny, and the other near the former residence of the President of Chechnya, in Gudermes. Both schools are financed by the Akhmad Kadyrov Fund, dedicated to the memory of Ramzan’s father, the country’s first president. I witnessed the intensive sessions of memorization of the Koran, as well as their physical training–many graduates are recruited by Kadyrov’s forces–to show the lives of these hundreds of young boys growing up in a new Chechnya.

Maxim Babenko
Maxim Babenko has covered events in Russia, Ukraine, and the North Caucasus, including the Euromaidan in Kiev, the Crimea crisis, and war in Eastern Ukraine. He has worked with the Washington Post, Newsweek, BuzzFeed, and many others.

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