For every Chechen male, the building of a house is part of his task in life, on a par with having a large family and raising children, so that he need not be ashamed of them in front of others. For many it is at the very leastÂ a lifetime’s work.
Chechens love to build and are good at it. Even in ancient times the building of a home was considered an important milestone in one’s life. But it had to be completed in one year: if the deadline was not met, the structure was deemed unsuitable for living in, and was abandoned. Many of these unfinished edifices still stand today, just as the builders left them.
In more recent history, every Chechen has traditionally built two or three houses. His forefathers built four: one before the deportation of 1944, a second in Kazakhstan, a third after the deportation, and a fourth for a son or other close relative.
The quality of the house helps form an opinion of a man and of the time he lived in. Many people still remember the words of Chechnya’s first president, Dzhokhar Dudayev during the first Chechen war – one day Chechens would learn from their historical experience and start to build their homes not upwards, but down into the earth; and included in each would be a special room to be used as a shelter from enemies.
However, even when they personally experienced the destructive power of war, the people did not follow his suggestion; no such bunkers have ever been included. Although the quality and durability of the newly built houses has increased, it has had no effect on their external appearance. They are all made of red brick. Chechens seem to be very partial to this as even the high surrounding walls are made of the same expensive material.
The ending of the active phase of the Chechen conflict and its replacement by a guerrilla struggle gave people hope that at least the bombing was over.
It would surely require an unprecedented degree of optimism to build a house and be a guerrilla at the same time. Likewise, it is hard to imagine a man taking advantage of a break between shelling, repairing some minor damage to his home, and then dashing down to the cellar when the shelling resumed. This is a good example of the fact that the inclination to build is greater than the one to make war, as some Russian historians are fond of pointing out.
The most daunting issue for anyone building a house is the skyrocketing price of construction materials: cement, brick, and timber. In contrast to other Russian regions, the average price of building a house in Chechnya is several tens of thousands of dollars. This is partly due to Chechens building solid bases for all their buildings, using two or three times the normal amount of cement. Oddly enough, if the foundation is all that is left of a ruined building, the owner still can say he owns a house.
There is a steady import of bricks and cement to Chechnya, as they are now the prime building materials. With careful financing, an ordinary construction base 1.5m high can be done for ,000 or ,000. A sack of cement costs 240 roubles. However, some builders find it financially beneficial to import cement from Volgograd and sell it to Chechens at a higher price; locally made cement is cheaper. The price of used bricks is three roubles whereas the imported ones go for 10-15 roubles.
A single-storey four-room house requires a minimum of 6,000 bricks. After the bricklayer has been paid, consideration must be given to the finish, the windows, doors, and water and gas connections. Costs can become astronomical, so that there is a constant battle to find the money for completion.
TheÂ compensation of 350,000 roubles for destroyed property is extremely small; it doesn’t even begin to pay for a fraction of the suffering a person has experienced. No one knows why this sum was decided on, but nearly every one who has received it finds it insulting. At present, it’s enough to enable the members of a family to build a cottage somewhere near the village of Selmentauzen, located between the Argun and Vedeno gorges, where no one will notice the family’s impoverished state.
In their pursuit of political dividends from Grozny’s reconstruction the authorities have ignored the tens of thousands of private homes that were damaged in the city’s private sector and rural districts and left standing. These houses have been abandoned by their owners, who are unable to restore them. So there the houses stand and, like the unfinished buildings of their forefathers, are silent reminders for Chechens of the difficult times in which they lived.