The virtual reality of Chechen recordkeeping A report from Russia's statistical anomaly in the mountains
According to official data from Russia's census bureau, Rosstat, the Sharoy district (the southernmost of Chechnya's 15 administrative districts) is seemingly the wealthiest territory in all of Russia. If the statistics are to be believed, each resident within this mountainous, hard-to-reach district spent more than $4,545 (350,000 rubles) per person on food alone in 2014. This is 20 times more than the Chechen average, according to statistics from 2014 (the most current data year available). This January, Meduza's special correspondent Ilya Zhegulev paid a visit to Russia's statistical anomaly in the mountains.
Even the native inhabitants of Grozny, Chechnya's capital city, are at loss when you ask them how to get to the Sharoy district. “You have to take a private taxi, only it has to be an off-roader—any other kind of car just won't make it,” advised local journalist Milana Mazayeva (who warned that there's nothing to do in Sharoy, once you get there).
The Sharoy district is the most mountainous and inaccessible region in the entire Chechen republic. It lies on Chechnya's southern border with Dagestan and Georgia. Intercity buses from Grozny don't go there, but you can take one to the neighboring Shatoy district, and from there proceed by car.
Looking at Russia's official statistics, however, reveals Sharoy district to be even more unique. Local residents here spend more on food than anywhere else in Russia. For example, in 2014, each district resident, including seniors and children, consumed 355,926 rubles ($4,623) worth of produce. This means each living resident was spending $390 per month on food. This is extremely high for a country with subsidized basic food items. In the Tsuntinsky district of the adjacent Dagestan Republic, residents spent 20 times less over the same period.
“How can they eat so much there? Like, do they have bigger appetites?” asked Abuyazid, a resident of the neighboring Shatoy district. Abuyazid had agreed to drive me from Grozny to the Sharoy district. On the way, we stopped at his home to collect a spare tire and have a small snack. His wife treated us to a dish of Zhizhig-Galnysh, a national Chechen dish of meat and hand rolled gnocchi-like dumplings.
Abuyazid works as a taxi driver. Many men from the Sharoy district ply this trade, chiefly because there isn't much else. Everyday he drives to Grozny, which is 65 kilometers (40 miles) away. If he wanted to, he could move to the capital and rent a one-bedroom apartment there for about 10,000 rubles ($128) a month. Shatoy, though, is where his home and parents are. “If an apartment were 7,000 rubles a month, then we'd go,” Abuyazid admits. His monthly salary does not exceed 12,000 rubles ($153), after he covers the dues for the taxi company, which include costs for gas and the credit payable for the new Lada Granta he drives. His wife works at the district employment bureau and earns 15,000 rubles ($191). All their money goes towards food and his daughter's travel, who journeys daily between Shatoy and Grozny to continue her university studies.
As we prepared to leave, Abuyazid, too, started showing great interest in seeing how people live in the neighboring Sharoy district, where they apparently spend 30,000 rubles ($382) just on food.
After we left Shatoy, the road became rutted and icy, but the new Lada could manage it. As we approached Kenkhi, the most populated village in the Sharoy district, we met a woman walking along the road and offered her a lift. Hitchhiking is the only way to travel around Sharoy district—there are no buses and, as we learned, there is only one taxi driver in the whole district. The woman's name was Fatima. She was on her way to pay her relatives a visit. “If you're looking for decent food, go buy it at Khasavyurt wholesale market,” said Fatima. According to Fatima, the only work available in the village is teaching at the school. All the men, she said, have left to find jobs either in Moscow or Astrakhan.
The main store in Kenkhi village is a small, single-story building with the words “The Juice Store” written on its store-front sign. Inside, “abundant” is not one of the words you'd use to describe the selection of products. Cheap, everyday consumer goods take up half the store. The other half is made up of produce, which includes an assortment of cereals, canned goods, confectionery items, and some fruit. The business is owned and run by Rasul Isayev and his family. The whole operation seems to be coming apart slowly. Each day, the store has no more than ten customers, who do not buy the dairy products, meats, or vegetables (locals make or procure these things themselves). At one time, Isayev thought of selling fresh bread and he even bought a bread machine. But no one bought any. The villagers, it seems, prefer to make bread at home. Only adding to the store's woes, the few customers there are often make their purchases on credit. Isayev showed us three hefty-looking lenders' logbooks. Every “Eid al-Adha” festival (a four-day religious holiday celebrated by Muslims), he starts a new logbook, but many of his customers have yet to pay off their past debts.
A good day's income is 1,500 rubles ($19.12), says Isayev. Perhaps only once per day someone will come in for a child's school notebook and pen.
When we arrived in Sharoy village, we couldn't find a single store. In the past, one of Abuyazid's friends had run a fruit and vegetable stand here. But we soon learned that he'd closed it down. With the departure of Russian soldiers once stationed in the area, the business simply became unprofitable.
On the hill where the makeshift shop had once been, an elderly man stood smoking a cigarette. I immediately went up to ask him where he buys his food and how much he buys at a time. The man's name was Musa. “Produce? What do I want produce for? Come to my home, we will feed you dinner,” Musa told me.
At Musa's home, his wife, Marika, bustled about. “Are you from Russia? From Moscow? We will treat you to dinner. We always used to treat the Russians. They were stationed here, and my husband would be giving them things all the time—a chicken, some cheese. I was trying to save [the food] and I'd scold him for his generosity. He called me a crocodile for this. Soldiers would come to visit, and he would say to them, ‘And here's my little crocodile.’ Of course, I was offended. How am I a crocodile?”
Marika has five children. Her youngest daughter studies at a pedagogical institute and is already teaching the younger grades at the local school. The school has 30 students and four teachers, with classes in mathematics, Russian, Chechen, and Islam. English is also taught via Skype. In 2006, the area first got electricity, thanks to funding from the “Kadyrov Foundation.” The Sharoy district was the last district in Chechnya to get electricity. Today, it's even connected to the Internet.
One thing Sharoy still lacks are gas lines for home heating, and no pipelines are expected to reach the area anytime soon. So people heat their homes the old-fashioned way: with wood.
Marika's youngest son works as the local school's boiler stoker. The eldest son, Isa, once worked as a policeman, but he was fired after he crashed a squad car. “We farm everything ourselves—meat, cheese, cottage cheese, eggs, bread, vegetables,” said Marika. Sometimes, they might sell produce to their neighbors, but most often they simply trade things with them, for example cheese in exchange for clothes.
They treated me to some potatoes and meat, and then tea and sweets. Sweets and sugar are probably the only things they go to buy in Khimoy, the administrative center for the Sharoy district. The family does this once a week, and spends between 2,000–3,000 rubles (about $37). This means the family of seven spends a maximum of 12,000 rubles ($180) a month on produce. The other ten families in the village lead similar lives.
Life goes on much the same as it did under the secessionist leadership of Dzhokhar Dudayev and Aslan Maskhadov (who led Chechnya's separatist governments in the late 1990s and early 2000s), except in those times there was no electric light. Marika finds the greatest differences, though, when comparing now with Soviet times. “Then it was forbidden to have lots of livestock. Kadyrov says the opposite—tend your cattle, nothing is forbidden,” she says happily. She remembers the separatists and guerrillas darkly. “They came here, too. They were under orders from Khattab. [Ibn al-Khattab, or simply Commander Khattab, was a Saudi Arabian-born Chechen independence fighter who fought in both the First Chechen and Second Chechen Wars.] Then the old men got together and didn't allow them into the area. So they agreed to go around us.”
“There is food aplenty—lots of it. And we live well. Everyone in the village has livestock. No one is hungry. There are those who are poor, but if they're willing dedicate themselves to bit of work, they'll survive,” Marika told me, as we said our goodbyes.
Marika's son, Isa, the former policeman, then drove me in his Lada Priora to Khimoy. Khimoy's central store has political significance. It belongs to Sharoy Municipal District Head Raisa Baturayevaya, whose eldest son, Mohammed, works in the store and is also head of the regional department for labor and social development.
When I told Mohammed about Russia's official statistics for food consumption levels in the Sharoy district, he didn't seem surprised. “You know, as soon as I make it up into the mountains, I immediately have an appetite.” He admits, however, that the official statistics don't reflect the small number of customers he gets at his own store.
Of the district's 3,000 inhabitants, only 400 are officially listed as employed. No one wants to work at a store for 15,000 rubles ($191), says Mohammed. On most weekdays, the whole store doesn't make more than 7,000 rubles ($89.25) in a day. He says things are even worse now than usual. Mohammed opens the store only when “a client” gives him a call. The store—of course—doesn't keep any records or receipts.
The district's most professional employer is Lem Tagirov, the beloved a local legend. He is also the Khimoy central store's biggest patron. In the second half of the 1990s, between the two Chechen wars, Tagirov worked as Russia's special envoy to the Republic of Ichkeria (the unrecognized secessionist government of the Chechen Republic proclaimed in 1991 by Dzhokhar Dudayev). While living and working in Moscow, Tagirov never forgot about his small mountain home of Khimoy. Many of the things standing in Khimoy today—a small park with a World War II memorial, some restored old fortresses and mosques—were built by Tagirov. He also installed the town's running water, and sometimes comes to Khimoy to hand out money to the needy. He even established a farm with six camels, though there are only two camels left now, and there are plans to get rid of them, says Ruslan Mezhidov, Tagirov's nephew, who manages the farm. Mezhidov has the same problem as the Khimoy store when it comes to hiring employees: nobody wants the job.
The most costly development built by Tagirov is Sharoy district's one and only petrol station. Tagirov and the head of the Chechen government himself, Ramzan Kadyrov, attended the grand opening, but the station has been a lousy investment, from a business perspective. Locals rarely buy gasoline, and often a single tank of the stuff is enough to last a whole year. “See, today, we've sold only 3,500 rubles ($44) worth,” Tagirov's nephew tells me, throwing up his hands. “Every time I'm looking at sales like this, I want to leave this place.” At a construction cost of 16 million rubles ($204,000), and with a profit margin of 30 percent, the station won't be paid off another 43 years.
* * *
At 10:00 in the morning, a solitary woman stood next to the brand new Sharoy district administration building in Khimoy. Other than her, the street was deserted. “May I help you?” she asked.
By a stroke of luck, Louisa Hadzhiyeva turned out to be a representative from “Chechenstat”—the federal statistics department for the whole Chechen Republic. “Wow!” she exclaimed when I told her the district's official consumption statistics. “This means everyone here must be rich. Eating black caviar everyday. That can't be. Those kind of figures are for the birds. Even an idiot can understand these numbers are ridiculous.”
“But these figures could be confirmed by checking grocery stores' receipts and accounting records,” I said.
“What receipts and records?” she laughed.
As it so happened, the district authorities were not there. Indeed, they hadn't been there all week. The district administration had temporarily relocated to another area, because for some reason the new building had problems with its electricity.
I met with the deputy head of the Sharoy District, Hussein Lurmagomedov, on my way back to Grozny. He was driving in a black Lada Priora, returning from a meeting in the capital. After listening to me, Lurmagomedov whistled, “Per-person? 356,000 rubles? I'll be damned! We have a total of eight shops. In one month, trade for the whole district is not even a million rubles!”
Finally, back in Grozny, the local head of the Department of Trade and Service Statistics in Chechenstat, Khava Abusheva, tried to explain the official data for Sharoy. According to her, the statistics are calculated by sample-testing the income of individual entrepreneurs. For the most recent sample test, out of the 49 registered businesses in district, just a single owner's earnings were sampled. This particular businessman did “a huge amount sales” (both locally and throughout Chechnya), and thereby ballooned the Sharoy district's consumption statistics. “We cannot, however, because of the way the statistics were gathered, know exactly where and what this one business owner was selling. We can just say it was sold in the Sharoy district,” Abusheva said.
This one entrepreneur's impact on the government's numbers is strange. The total volume of food products sold in Sharoy in 2014, according Chechenstat, was apparently 1.1 billion rubles ($14 million). Of this amount, the bare minimum this one business owner could have sold is 22.5 million rubles (roughly $280,000) worth of produce. In Sharoy, no one knows of any businessman moving so much produce. Whoever it is, it's doubtful the business is really earning even this minimum amount. However, once again according to another set of statistics from Chechenstat, the 49 entrepreneurs in Sharoy only claimed 100,000 rubles ($1,275) in combined sales last year. In other words, in 2014 each of them earned on average only 2,000 rubles ($25).
“When we collect data for total sales at the district level, the differences are not so striking,” said Abusheva, adding she had been dealing with statistics for more than 20 years. “But when it's recalculated according to per capita earnings, it reveals a quite different story.” Indeed, the total district turnover for Sharoy district is similar to the Vedeno (1.6 billion rubles) and Shatoisky (1.3 billion rubles) districts. However, in Vedeno there are 39,000 people. In Shatoy there are 18,000 people. In Sharoy, however, there are just 3,000 people.
Experts in Moscow see nothing unusual in the Sharoy district's bizarre statistics. “Chechen statistics are a virtual reality,” says Natalia Zubarevich, director of regional programs at the Independent Institute of Social Policy. “It's best not bother yourself with it.”
This text was translated from Russian by Peter Braga.