A place to feel free
A group of young Chechens is battling to save their social club – the only place where they can talk politics, stage plays, practise their English and dress as they please. It wouldn’t be anything unusual in the West – but in the deeply conformist society of Chechnya, it’s revolutionary.
The reconstruction of the capital, Grozny, after the two wars of the 1990s and early 2000s, is impressive. But despite the outward polish, Chechens are still living with deep psychological damage. And while young people may have been born too late to have seen much of the war, the thread of trauma runs through families.
The club is a dramatic contrast with the sadness of the Chechens’ history. ‘As our members often say, the club is a place where people can feel relaxed. There is no limit on our personal safety or freedom of expression. It’s a place where you can feel that you are listened to,’ says one young man.
‘The club is not the only place where young men and women can mix, but it’s the only place where you can go as a girl and not think about whether your skirt is long enough or whether you’re wearing a headscarf,’ adds a young woman. ‘In other places, you need to wear a long skirt, a long-sleeved shirt and headscarf, and keep your fringe out of sight.’
Another member of the club chimes in: ‘Our club is built on the principles of independence, equality and democracy. This is the only place in Chechnya where you can see this.’
Eight months ago the club lost its home – and though, through sheer enthusiasm, it has somehow kept going, the club urgently needs a permanent meeting-place. For the moment, club members have been gathering in unsuitable and unreliable venues, but they are now fundraising so they can rent a flat to meet in regularly.
The club’s organizers prefer not to apply to large funders because it’s safer for them to operate underneath the radar, and because they want to preserve the non-hierarchical spirit of the club. So they’re appealing to the public – quietly, so as not to draw too much attention to themselves and endanger the club – in the hope they can have a room of their own.