Rebuilding hope, dignity, and knowledge…through comedy
In January of 1995, Adam Islamov, aged ten, climbed a tree with his friends to watch a military tank roll through the streets of his neighborhood in Grozny, Chechnya. They were impressed and fascinated…until they saw tears streaming down the faces of the grown-ups. A week of air raids saw the heaviest bombardments since the destruction of Dresden in World War II. Though hundreds of Russian officers and soldiers resigned in protest, Boris Yeltsin continued the attack, and the bombing of Grozny’s downtown area left buildings in charred frames.
Adam can’t erase the memory of seeing his friend explode from a missile. His parents tried to shield him from the shocking devastation, but he couldn’t avoid the torn and burnt bodies. Whole families were lost. Massacres took place in villages. The dead were everywhere, and people went from funeral to funeral. His older brothers, aged fifteen and sixteen, were tortured and held for three days, but Adam’s father miraculously managed to free them. People lost everything. The family’s two shops were burned down, and whenever Adam’s dead friend’s mother saw Adam, she teared up. After two years, a military stalemate existed.
The Russians withdrew in 1997, but chaos and misery ruled the land. Human rights groups estimate that close to 100,000 civilians and combatants were killed. The Red Cross and other NGO’s operated humanitarian missions, but people were impoverished and angry; many still possessed weapons. Despairing citizens who had resisted Russia’s aggression fell victim to warlords and criminals operating freely due to the government’s weakness. Adam says that Russian propaganda then spread a stereotype of Chechens as terrorists and gangsters.
According to Adam, Vladimir Putin used this stereotype to justify the second invasion of Chechnya in 1999, helping him to win the presidential elections. Adam describes an “information blockade,” denying the press coverage. Though hideous human rights abuses occurred on all sides, Adam says that Putin gave the Russian Army impunity to do whatever they wanted. “This was a very cruel war,” Adam says. “Many people disappeared.” The combined military and civilian casualties ran as high as 80,000 in less than a year. Much of Grozny was obliterated. A pro-Russian government was established, and Chechnya remains Russian, although “Russian authorities are bad at managing Chechnya…and rebuilding is slow.”
And yet, Adam says that though fifteen years of war have broken many people’s spirits and filled them with hate, “it has not broken me.” He is optimistic and committed to a better future. Though “war can begin with only one leader, one general, one president,” he believes that knowledge and education can proliferate also, perhaps even more powerfully.
Chechnya suffers the weight of censorship and insufficient funding for its educational institutions, but Adam has been fortunate in supplementing his journalism major at the Chechen State University by seizing opportunities for education abroad. His first experience was as the leader of a Chechen student delegation to Minsk in Belarus for a program titled “Bridges of Education.” He studied English with American instructors and absorbed a different cultural perspective. He realized how theory-oriented and narrow his Russian-dominated education has been, how unaware his fellow students were of peaceful options. The following summer, he attended the Danish School of Journalism in Denmark, learning more practical applications than abstract theories. He is especially pleased to attend HSI.
And Adam possesses a powerful “weapon”—the KVN. KVN is a comedy club that is also a televised game show and is extremely popular throughout the Russian sphere. There are many groups of KVN teams which belong to leagues—of which hundreds exist. The teams compete every year to become their league’s champion, and Adam’s team has won their league for the last two years. Often when the content of a comedy scenario is disputed, Adam assumes the role of leader and mediates, sometimes immediately before being on air. Through KVN, an opportunity exists to criticize government officials through humor.
Adam and his KVN team also perform in schools, using comedy to fight the “nation of terrorists” stereotyping. They also encourage the development of new KVN teams where young people can discover their talents. Currently, a youth broadcasting company is achieving some success, and Adam hopes to contribute a program on youth in the Chechen Republic. “I am certain that with these activities we do something useful for reconstruction of our republic and civil consciousness,” Adam says.