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Russia’s ‘wedding of the century’ The country’s rage about a 17-year-old girl marrying a 47-year-old Chechen police chief

Meduza
Photo: Sergey Ponomarev / Meduza

On May 16, a wedding took place in Grozny, the capital of Russia’s Chechen Republic in the Caucasus. The bride was the 17-year-old Louisa “Kheda” Goilabiyeva, and the groom was the 47-year-old Nadzhud Guchigov, a district police chief. According to some sources, Guchigov may already have been married to another woman at the time of this wedding. Many prominent Chechen officials attended the celebrations, including head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov. Russian media have been covering the looming union since early May. Over the course of the last two weeks, officials and pro-government media succeeded in turning public attention away from the issue of bigamy to the issue of child marriage. Many questions about the wedding still remain unanswered, and it seems the public has forgotten about Guchigov’s first wife altogether. Meduza traces how the story was reported.

Proposals and bigamy

On April 30, Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta published an article by journalist Elena Milashina about the intentions of a 57-year old police chief in Chechnya to marry a 17-year old school student Louisa Goilabiyeva, who goes by the name Kheda, against her will. The article claimed that Guchigov is already married. According the Novaya Gazeta report, the Goilabiyev family agreed to the marriage due to pressure from Guchigov. Yet a man who identified himself as Nadzhud Guchigov on the phone denied the claims and told Milashina that he is happily married and does not plan on taking a second wife. According to Novaya Gazeta, the wedding was to take place on May 2, but apparently it was cancelled due to the public outcry following the publication of Milashina’s article.

April 30: Novaya Gazeta reports that “Police chief Guchigov issued an ultimatum to the parents of the young woman: they must give over their daughter of their own free will by May 2, or he will take her by force, and will show no mercy towards the family.”

May 2: Chechen head Ramzan Kadyrov is quoted by Novaya Gazeta as saying “I personally sent people to find out if she agrees to this or not! And her mother said that the girl agrees! And the grandfather on the father’s side has given his permission! And the issue has been resolved! That’s what they said! I sent my most trusted person, and we got an explanation and an answer!

May 10: Shamsail Saraliyev, representative of the Chechen Republic in the Russian parliament, is quoted by news agency TASS as saying, “According to the current legal framework of the Russian Federation, under some circumstances, local governing bodies allow marriage from 16 years of age. Our region usually uses 17 years of age as the cutoff.”

May 12: Russia’s Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights Pavel Astakhov wrote on Instagram, “The most important thing is that the neither the parents (who are legal representatives of the young woman), the young woman herself, nor other relatives have appealed for help; they have not confirmed the information on ‘coercion, violence, rights violations’ of the minor.”

No statements were made about Nadzhud Guchigov’s first wife or a possible divorce. Chechen officials also reported that Guchigov is 46 years old instead of 57 years old, as Novaya Gazeta had initially claimed. In response to Milashina’s article, Kadyrov also criticized local media for not reporting on the topic of this marriage, and subsequently fired the local Chechen Press Minister.

Photo: Sergey Ponomarev / Meduza

The bride's announcement

According to Novaya Gazeta, the wedding was eventually postponed from May 2 to May 10, and was subsequently cancelled one more time. On May 12, the pro-Kremlin news channel Lifenews reported on the story, featuring an interview with the bride, Kheda Goilabiyeva. In the video of the interview, the young woman says that she met Guchigov about one year ago, and that she is entering into this union of her own free will. Lifenews journalists did not pose any questions about bigamy, but Kheda says that she is aware of her fiancé’s “previous marriage.” From this statement it can be deduced that Guchigov is divorced, although this information was not confirmed. During the interview, Kheda sits next to her relative Alpatu Yusupova, who prompts some of Kheda’s answers to questions the journalists ask.

May 12: Lifenews reports, “He is a good person, therefore… Manly, dependable,’ says Louisa in answer to questions about her future husband. According to her, she has known him for about one year. At first she did not think that an older high-ranking official would have any feelings for her, and she simply enjoyed spending time with him. However, when he proposed, she was not surprised. Before this, the young woman had turned down several men, and this time she said yes. Is the age difference a concern? Louisa answers, ‘no.’

After the Lifenews report, Goilabiyeva’s relatives stopped speaking with Elena Milashina. When Milashina came to their home, they angrily sent her away. The interaction was documented in detail by Lifenews journalists. Novaya Gazeta was accused of spreading rumors about a forced marriage in Chechnya. Milashina said she had been watched and followed as she was carrying out the investigation for her story in the region.

By this time, the question of whether Goilabiyeva was entering the union of her own free will was virtually absent from state and pro-government media. The media focused instead on the topic of child marriage, which is allowed by Russian law under exceptional circumstances.

May 14: Russia’s Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights Pavel Astakhov is cited by radio station RSN as saying, “Family law states that in exceptional cases, the minimum age is established by regional authorities. In Chechnya that age is 17, in Bashkortostan it is 14, in Moscow region it is 16. There are also regions without a minimum established age. In the Caucasus, emancipation and puberty take place earlier, let’s not be prude about this. There are places where women are all wrinkled up by age 27, and by our standards these women look 50. And anyway, the constitution says we can’t interfere in the personal affairs of citizens.”

Astakhov subsequently apologized for his statement about “wrinkled up women.” Neither Astakhov nor any other official or media source has detailed exactly what constitutes an “exceptional case” when underage marriage is possible.

Some journalists and experts have spoken out in defense of Caucasian traditions. Maxim Shevchenko, former head of a working group on civil society and dialog in the Caucasus, said that it is “untactful” for journalists to meddle in the private affairs of newlyweds. Caucasian politics expert Orkhan Djemal stated that reporting on the marriage is sensationalist and that “liberal journalists will kindle and search for such facts” because they dislike Chechen head Ramzan Kadyrov.

The wedding

Click here for Sergey Ponomarev’s photo series from the wedding in Grozny

On May 16, Kheda Goilabiyeva and Nadzhud Guchigov were married. Many people noted that Goilabiyeva did not look particularly happy during the ceremony, but according to Caucasian traditions brides do not usually show much emotion and typically watch the festivities as opposed to taking part in them. The marriage was officially registered, and the officiant who carried out the registration was revealed to be Chechen journalist Asya Belova, who demonstrated the marriage license stamps in the newlywed’s documents to dozens of journalists present at the ceremony. According to the documents, this is the police chief’s first officially registered marriage, and he is actually 47 years old, rather than 46 or 57, as was reported earlier.

On the day of the wedding, Instagram user zamid_deno posted a photo captioned “two daughters-in-law and me,” which features a man standing between Kheda Goilabiyeva and another unidentified woman. There is speculation that the other woman may be Guchigov’s first wife. The photograph has been deleted, but it can still be accessed through Google’s cache. No Russian officials have commeneted about Guchigov’s first wife.

May 16: Lifenews reported on the Goilabiyeva-Guchigov marriage, stating that “The bridesman of the 17-year old Louisa Goilabiyeva was Magomed Daudov, the chief of the Chechen Republic’s administration. Colonel Daudov accompanied the bride into the marriage registration office, and now he is attending the celebration at the House of Fashion as a guest. Our correspondents spoke with the now wife of the Nozhai-Yurtovsky police chief. The young woman is in higher spirits, but she says she is very tired: the early rise, the long preparations and anxiousness have taken a toll”.

So what happened?

Elena Milashina and Novaya Gazeta have not been able to get the answers to questions that began asking two weeks ago: is bigamy allowed on the territory of the Russian Federation (more specifically, in Chechnya) despite the fact that it is technically prohibited by law, and what are the circumstances under which a young woman who has just turned 17 can marry? Rather than getting to the bottom of these issues, Ramzan Kadyrov, Lifenews, and state officials have succeeded in turning the public’s attention towards the topics of child marriage and Caucasian tradition. Thanks to efforts from Kadyrov, this has become a celebrity wedding.