Fieldwork 2010: Chechens in Moscow

In this part of the series, Laura finally reveals her research topic.

You have all been waiting. Now is the time. I did research among the CHECHENS!!! Or the Noxchi, which is the name they use to refer to themselves. You might have guessed it… that’s where the ‘N’ referred to in my mysterious posts. Why were they mysterious, Laura? Well…

A few months ago, as I was preparing my fieldwork in Moscow, I made a few phone calls to arrange contacts in the city. One of them was to a befriended Russian, who is currently living in the Netherlands, and who lost his wife as a result of the 2002 hostage taking in the Dubrovka theatre in Moscow. In and after this horrible event, he had a severe encounter both with fanatic (Chechen) fighters/terrorists, and the Russian government, against which he started a court case, since his wife had died from the gas that the government used before storming the building. When I told him about my plan to do research in Moscow, his immediate response was that I’d better not do that, that the Russian government would find out within a day that I’m there, and wouldn’t be pleased. He was willing to help me with contacts, but his advice was to not go through with the project.

Needless to say, that was a bit nerve-wrecking and made me feel like I should seriously reconsider my plan.

And then there was one of the teachers of my department who, when asked by my supervisor about the level of secrecy I should observe when talking about my endeavours, responded by saying: Oh no, it’s fine! Only a few of them get killed!

The above may make it somewhat understandable to you, that I wanted to be cautious in disclosing what group my research was amongst. It would be terribly inconvenient to get killed before finishing my thesis.

Now that I’m back, I can tell you all that Chechens are a fascinating group of people with a strong sense of being a nation, and keeping their cultural traditions, and who, surprise surprise, are NOT all bandits, criminals and terrorists! Who would have thought!

On the day that I left the city, the 29th of March, explosions happened in the metro system in Moscow. This again has brought a sense of fear among the Russians in the city that (most) Chechens/Kavkazi people are or may be dangerous. However, many Chechens also experience fear – fear that they will be discriminated, beaten up, not hired for a job, or generally seen as savage.

It it strange that the very thing that my research in the past 3 months has focused upon (feelings and experiences of Chechens who live in Moscow) all of a sudden was ‘on the edge’ because of these bombings. As far as I heard, all my contacts and friends are okay. One of my contacts was in the metro before the one that exploded. As her brother wrote me: “3.5 minutes saved her life”. Crazy.

I was in a Dutch television program (Pauw&Witteman) the night I arrived back in Amsterdam (29th of March), where I commented on the events and the experiences of Chechens in Moscow.

Greetings from Amsterdam and thanks for your patience 😉

Laura van Deventer is a Master’s student in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the VU.

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