Between Hero and Murderer: Bridging the Gap Between Official and Unofficial Memories of Akhmad Kadyrov (Catherine Green)

In April of 2017, a man made his way to Akhmad Kadyrov Bridge in the outskirts of St. Petersburg, sat down, and handcuffed himself to a railing.[1] While Akhmad Kadyrov had been dead for over a decade, his son, Ramzan, was very much alive, and news of his persecution of gay men in Chechnya was receiving increased attention. This activist used a bridge named for Ramzan’s father to protest the son’s actions. The naming of this municipal bridge on the very outskirts of St. Petersburg endowed it with an intense political dimension, because the man for whom it was named is a complex figure without a set legacy. Honored by the city, detested by some citizens, met with indifference by others: how can the historical Kadyrov be understood?

In this paper I will discuss the extent to which official and unofficial memories of Akhmad Kadyrov diverge, and what the disparity reveals. In order to do so I will analyze the Akhmad Kadyrov Bridge in St. Petersburg as a site of memory, employing Reuben Rose-Redwood et al.’s framework of the semiotics of commemorative toponyms. I will show that the official state goal of honoring Kadyrov as a Hero of the Russian Federation has met with dubious results. While Kadyrov’s memory is still contested in the context of this bridge, the toponymic processes of normalization are already underway.

The controversy sparked by naming a bridge in St. Petersburg after Kadyrov stems mainly from his role in the first Chechen conflict of the mid-1990s, in which the majority Muslim republic fought to separate from the Russian Federation. As head Mufti, or religious leader, of Chechnya during that conflict, Kadyrov declared a jihad on Russia and called for every Chechen to kill one hundred and fifty Russians.[2] Later in the decade, though, Kadyrov began to distance himself from the separatist government. Radical Wahabbism emerged in the region, infiltrating the separatist movement, and Kadyrov sought to distance himself from it. He determined that siding with Russia would be the way to do so.[3] In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when conflict once again broke out, he would become Vladimir Putin’s greatest ally in the region, aligning himself with pro-Russian forces in the city of Gudermes.[4] He became acting head of the Chechen Republic as a region of the Russian Kaldyrov BridgeFederation, and then was elected its President in 2003.[5] On May 9th, 2004, at a Victory Day Parade, Akhmad Kadyrov was killed in a terrorist attack.[6] Shortly thereafter, Vladimir Putin posthumously awarded Kadyrov the status of Hero of the Russian Federation, the highest civic honor in Russia.[7] Over a decade later, on May 30, 2016, the Toponymic Commission of St. Petersburg voted to recommend naming a new bridge over the Dudergofsky Canal after Kadyrov.[8]

In analyzing place names through the lens of political semiotics, Rose-Redwood et al. write about the concept of the “city text,” the web of toponyms in an urban area written over time, usually by low-level administrators.[9] In the city text, one can read the commemorative and political priorities of successive local regimes, by which only those figures deemed “heroic” enter into the canon of a city—and can be purged by successive regimes.[10] Akhmad Kadyrov’s entrance into the city text of St. Petersburg agrees somewhat with this framework, as he is a Hero of the Russian Federation. At the time, though, some residents of St. Petersburg argued that he had no relation to their city and so there was no explanation for his name appearing on a bridge.[11] Others believed that a Hero of Russia, no matter where they are from, should be honored anywhere in the country. This was the belief held by the mayor, Georgii Poltavchenko, as well as conservative politician Nikolai Starikov, who wrote that “in any part of the country, the name of a hero is a matter of pride.”[12]

That the Toponymic Commission of St. Petersburg voted to name a bridge for Kadyrov at all reveals something about their commemorative priorities, but the manner in which Kadyrov was entered into the city text is equally revealing. The Toponymic Commission held an “extraordinary closed session” on May 30th from which several members were absent, despite having come to an understanding that the matter would be decided in autumn, and voted to recommend naming the new bridge for Kadyrov.[13] Add to this the physical location of Kadyrov Bridge, and the extent to which the city was truly committed to honoring his memory comes into question. The Krasnoselsky district is known as a spal’nyi raion, a neighborhood far from the center of St. Petersburg where, according to the colloquial term, people only come home at night to sleep.[14] From the center, Kadyrov Bridge is a ninety-minute commute on two metro lines and a bus. Kadyrov is therefore placed in the margins of the city text, but the fact remains that he was written in. This presents a tension within the state commemoration: both a desire to memorialize Kadyrov, and an instinct to minimize the memorialization, both spatially and procedurally.

Both compulsions make sense for a Toponymic Commission, who must be aware that, as Rose-Redwood et al. outline, the act of naming something, especially commemoratively, imbues it with “ideological meaning and political significance.”[15] Its functional value now must coexist with a less fixed value. The 2016 naming of Kadyrov Bridge can be interpreted in the context of Kari Polonen’s political “rhetoric of street naming.” Palonen describes the forensic, or past-looking, and deliberative, or future-looking, aspects of street naming.[16] The decision to enter Kadyrov into the city text, as described by committee members who made the choice, was both forensic, looking towards the historical relationship between Russia and Chechnya, and deliberative, thinking about the future of that relationship. Committee member Boris Nikolashchenko said that in making the decision, he thought about the history of the relationship between the Chechen and Russian peoples, claiming that it had taken a turn for the worse only when Stalin deported thousands of Chechens. Kadyrov, he argued, had marked a return to what he described as earlier years of “reconciliation.”[17] Konstantin Sukhenko, another member, was even more explicitly deliberative, saying that he voted yes as a “positive signal to the Islamic world.”[18]

This goal is more complicated than merely honoring a hero, but officially, it seems to have been well received in Chechnya. Ramzan Kadyrov, Akhmad’s son and current president of Chechnya, wrote that he was “truly grateful to [governor] Georgii Sergeyevich…for perpetuating the memory of the outstanding Russian, [Akhmad Kadyrov], who gave his life in the fight with international terrorism.”[19] In November of 2016, the Chechen delegation to a religious conference in St. Petersburg, led by the Mufti of the republic, visited the bridge as a sort of pilgrimage.[20] It is clear that this bridge is more than a piece of infrastructure. Its existence as Kadyrov Bridge is a declaration about the official interpretation of Kadyrov’s role in the Chechen conflicts. Kadyrov Bridge, on Heroes’ Prospect in St. Petersburg, actively Bridge Sidingasserts his status as a positive figure for all of Russia, but it also makes a statement about the outcome of the Chechen conflicts: unity, peace, reconciliation.

Neither of these assertions has gone uncontested. First, it seems that Russian public opinion is far less settled on broad outcomes of the war. In 2015, over five years after the official end of the conflict, a Levada Center survey showed an even split between those who saw the situation in Chechnya as “safe and peaceful” (44%) and “tense, strained” (40%) or “critical, volatile” (4%).[21] The same survey found a quarter of Russians felt it was “not possible” for “order and peace” to ever be established.[22] Almost thirty percent of those surveyed by Levada in 2017 responded either “definitely yes” or “most likely yes” when asked whether “escalation of the situation in Chechnya and North Caucasus” was probable in the next year.[23] The rhetoric of unity and multiculturalism that came up in official discussions of this bridge also contrasts with public opinion. A 2017 survey asked about attitudes towards migrant workers from five regions. Workers from the North Caucasus were the most maligned, with forty-one percent of respondents saying they had a negative attitude towards them.[24] This discrepancy between the official narrative, and the more conflicted views of Russians generally, predates the construction and naming of Kadyrov Bridge, but that event serves as a stark illustration of the issue.

Rose-Redwood et al. draw attention to place-names as a site of struggle, a “cultural arena” in which political and ideological conflicts play out in the microcosm of a toponym.[25] Given the disparity between unresolved public opinion and a fairly straightforward official narrative, it makes sense that Kadyrov Bridge became just such a site of conflict. Shortly after the Toponymic Committee’s decision was announced, a petition against the name was posted online and gathered tens of thousands of signatures in about two weeks.[26] In early June of 2016, citizens protested and demanded a referendum be held, so that citizens could decide the name of the bridge.[27] In her work on the politics of street names, Kari Palonen asserts that toponyms need to be accepted by the populace in order to maintain spatial stability. In commemorative toponyms, this most often means that “the ‘greatness’ of persons to be commemorated must be generally recognized.”[28] The immediate pushback against Kadyrov Bridge demonstrates a lack of that popular legitimacy and acknowledgment among citizens. Despite the state’s assertion of Kadyrov as an unequivocal hero, this narrative is not accepted by all.

The toponymic decision at hand brought to light the discrepancies surrounding Kadyrov’s memory. Over the summer of 2016, several Russian LiveJournal users discussed their opinions. In these longer pieces, the tone tended not to be very inflammatory. A few actively supported entering Kadyrov into St. Petersburg’s city text, repeating the argument that a Hero of Russia should be honored “in any part of our country—from Crimea to Vladivostok.”[29] One incredulously asked whether citizens had “already forgotten about [terror attacks] North-East and Beslan, about the unending war and apartment bombings,” horrible events which, to the author’s mind, the cooperation of Kadyrov and Putin put an end to.[30] This set of writers aligned with the state narrative of Kadyrov as a heroic and indispensable figure in Russia’s recent history.

Many LiveJournal users, though, seemed to be neutral on the name of the bridge, sometimes using it to discuss other issues. One user wryly noted that Moscow has had a Kadyrov Street since 2004. “People live on it. It’s no worse than others.”[31] Several users wrote that the debate was either a distraction or an intentional kindling of ethnic tensions. Of course, there were, too, those who were against the name, but on LiveJournal, at least, these arguments seemed to lean on the procedural issue, demanding a referendum on the name. On Google Maps, voices opposing Kadyrov Bridge were far more strident, possibly because the medium invites shorter, more reactive opinions. Several reviews of the bridge used the word “murderer” to describe Kadyrov. “You could just as soon call it ‘bridge of the murderer of the Russian people,’” wrote one reviewer.[32] Others directly criticized those who named the bridge, calling them “scum” and “flawed people.”[33] This wide spectrum of contradictory opinions reflects not just a toponymic fight, of course, but a historical one, in which Kadyrov’s legacy is open for debate. He is not yet fixed in the public imagination, and in St. Petersburg, the city has tried to change that by canonizing him as a hero in the city text. The extent to which this canonization has been Bridge Viewsuccessful can be examined in light of the way citizens interact with the bridge.

To some degree, Kadyrov’s memory is still contested at the physical site of the bridge through toponymic rebellion. Rose-Redwood et al. discuss the use of alternative place names as an act of “resistance” and “self-determination.”[34] Official toponyms are authoritatively handed down by the government, and refusing to use them is a highly accessible form of civic protest. The Akhmad Kadyrov Bridge, according to Google Maps reviews, is sometimes called the Akhmatovsky Bridge, after the poet Anna Akhmatova. Her profile and letters spelling out “Akhmatovsky” were placed on the bridge a year after it opened, in June of 2017.[35] Others called it the Idrisov Bridge, after a Chechen sniper from the Great Patriotic War, and one activist group affixed plates to the bridge bearing his name.[36] Generally, the idea in renaming the bridge was to evoke someone with a stronger connection to the city than Kadyrov’s; Akhmatova lived and wrote in St. Petersburg, and Idrisov fought in the city during the war. Some St. Petersburg reviewers, on the other hand, did not propose or use a different name but defied the toponym nonetheless. “This is not the Akhmad Kadyrov bridge,” wrote one user, “it’s just a bridge.”[37] While this linguistic defiance may seem minor, it signifies an unwillingness to accept what the state is asserting about Kadyrov. Individual memory, whether based on personal experience with the Chechen Wars, preexisting biases, news coverage, politicking, or a combination of the above, still has an advantage over the collective memory the state hopes to foster.

For all its controversy, though, it is still a bridge. People use it daily to drive to work, wait for buses, or simply take a walk. Interacting mundanely with the bridge is just as significant as protesting the name is for building a cohesive narrative of Kadyrov. Rose-Redwood et al. discuss the tension between the geographic and historic referents in a place name, and argue that over time, the geographic denotation of a toponym overtake the historic.[38] For example, an academic building named for a long-ago university president eventually fails to evoke a recollection of the figure for whom it is named, and might simply evoke the physical space of the building. As the conflict over the name of Kadyrov Bridge demonstrates, this process is not inevitable or immediate, but some interactions with the Bridge suggest that it is already underway.

This can be observed in Google Maps reviews, which also held information about how people living near the bridge related to and interacted with it. While this is unconfirmable, it appears that people who left reviews about their experience with the bridge as a physical site more often lived in proximity to the bridge than those who commented only on the name of the bridge. The former group were far more likely to include photographs with their review, and the information they supplied was almost always more site-specific. A significant number of these reviewers seemed to shrug at the bridge. “Most kak most”was a particular phrasing that came up again and again—“it’s just a bridge.” Many also commented on the beauty surrounding the bridge, from which there is a wide view of the Gulf of Finland. “At sunset there’s always a lot of people, all taking pictures,” wrote one user.[39] Another large contingent described the area around the bridge as an excellent fishing spot or a good place for a stroll. When I visited, despite the rain and the chill, I saw several people fishing, a young man rollerblading up and down the bank of the canal, and a couple on a date poking around the foundation of the bridge. People, in short, are making memories and associations with this bridge that have absolutely nothing to do with Akhmad Kadyrov.

As the geographical significance of Kadyrov Bridge overtakes, for some, the historical referent of its name, the strength of that historical referent may actually increase. Rose-Redwood et al. argue that as commemorative toponyms are accepted, they have the power to “render a certain version of history not only familiar, but also self-evident.”[40] Kadyrov Bridge connects Heroes’ Prospect. That association, especially as the loudest controversy over the name has faded, holds the power to connect the two in people’s minds. Even without this association, the name gradually becomes acceptable. News outlets like Fontanka, which initially struck a tone suggesting opposition to the name, now use “Kadyrov Bridge” without comment.

Which, though, is stronger: the defiance of the toponym, and thereby of the state memory of Kadyrov, or its acceptance and gradual association with daily life? The number of positive reviews (which almost never mention the name of the bridge) increased both in number and as a percentage of the whole over the last six months. Negative reviews (which almost always mention Kadyrov) have stayed approximately static, though as a percentage of the whole have decreased. As discussed, the bridge is a site of building new memories, a place for leisure or for a commute. As years pass and people continue to live their lives around this bridge, these new memories will outstrip the combative relationship with the toponym.

The important question when it comes to reconciling the preferred state narrative with the collective memory, though, is whether or not the bridge is associated with Kadyrov at all. However pleasantly time is spent on and around the bridge, will Kadyrov’s name be associated with it? There is no signage anywhere in the area of the bridge indicating for whom it is named, and several reviews suggest that many people never refer to it as Kadyrov Bridge. This seems to bring the situation to a stalemate. Neither those who wished to honor Kadyrov’s memory or accomplish political goals by entering him into the city text, nor those who felt that naming anything for him was a slap in the face, come out completely triumphant. By virtue of inertia, though, the state’s cause seems somewhat stronger. Whether or not most locals refer to the bridge by its proper name, or even know it has one, that name appears on official maps of the city, it is used in newspaper reports, and it does not seem to be going away.

The conflict surrounding Kadyrov Bridge may seem disproportionate, and perhaps, were the issue only about a municipal bridge, it might be. What is truly being debated, however, is much more than a bridge, much more even than Kadyrov himself. Nearly a third of Russians named the resolution of the Chechen conflict as Vladimir Putin’s main achievement in a 2017 Levada poll.[41] Almost twenty years after the events that began the second conflict, it remains in the collective consciousness. Akhmad Kadyrov, whether one views him as the murderer of the Russian people or as a savior who expelled Wahabbism from Chechnya, is an apt symbol for much else about the war, and his bridge has served as a place the debate can play out.

An illustrative anecdote to close: Shortly after the name was announced, a graffiti artist painted a portrait next to the bridge of Russian Colonel Budanov. Budanov fought in the second Chechen War, and was convicted of kidnapping and murder, most notably the rape and murder of an eighteen year old civilian girl.[42] He was assassinated in 2011, two years after being prematurely released from prison, by a Chechen man.[43] Next to Kadyrov Bridge, his portrait attracted attention: people brought flowers to it and took pictures with it, honoring the late Budanov in a way they never seemed inclined to honor Kadyrov at the same site.[44] While Budanov and Kadyrov were, ostensibly, on the same side of the second War, the contrast drawn in this instance suggests that the two men are viewed very differently in St. Petersburg.

How will history remember Kadyrov? Will it forgive his wrongdoings the way so many seem willing to forgive Budanov’s? Budanov was tried and found guilty by the state, but in polling, Levada found that approximately half of Russians thought his punishment was “too harsh” and that the trial was a political act to appease Chechnya.[45] Conversely, Kadyrov was and is lauded by the state, but as seen in the response to his bridge, many citizens disagree with such treatment. Determining who the heroes are is key to any war narrative, and as yet, the state seems unable to convince society of its preferred heroes. This historical debate is wrapped in a political one, and Kadyrov Bridge will continue to serve as a battlefield on which diverging narratives come into conflict.