A deal with a devil Targeted by their government, Ingush Sufis have turned to Ramzan Kadyrov for help, but his protection comes at a price
Story by Vladimir Sevrinovsky. Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.
A significant number of Chechens and Ingush are followers of Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam. Ingushetia’s Sufis include Batalkhadzhintsy, members of a brotherhood founded in the late 19th century by the sheik Batal-Haji Belkhoroyev. In the 1990s and 2000s, Belkhoroyev’s descendants and followers amassed political influence and assumed numerous high-ranking government posts in the republic. Since the early 2010s, however, the brotherhood has been losing followers, while security forces have frequently arrested members and raided their homes. In response, many have moved to Chechnya, where they enjoy support from Chechen leader and fellow Sufi Ramzan Kadyrov. But Kadyrov’s protection comes at a price: in return, the Batalkhadzhintsy have vowed to send several units of volunteers to fight in the war against Ukraine. At Meduza’s request, journalist Vladimir Sevrinovsky traveled to Gudermes, Chechnya, where followers of Belkhoroyev are training ahead of deployment in Russia’s invasion.
The Batalkhadzhintsy Rapid Response Unit
A sign at the entrance to the town of Gudermes reads, “Russian Special Forces University is open to everybody!” Volunteers seeking to join the war in Ukraine really do come from all over Russia; soldiers recruited in Chechnya, several of them tell Meduza, are both better-paid and better-equipped than those in other regions.
Training, which lasts only two weeks, includes both shooting practice and parachute drills. The university has already sent about 10,000 people into war, according to employees (though Meduza was unable to confirm this figure).
There are about 31 Ingush soldiers training at the university when Meduza’s correspondent visits. In one week, they’ll be sent to the front. Right now, however, their task is to record a video statement. One young fighter is studying the script on his phone, trying to memorize it. As he whispers the unwieldy phrases to himself, older soldiers attach patches to his jacket; one has the Chechen flag, while another shows the letter Z drawn in the white, blue, and red of the Russian flag.
When he finally feels ready, the other men line up behind him.
“We, students and descendants of Batal-Haji Belkhoroyev, have formed a volunteer battalion in honor of our teacher,” he stammers. “We all support traditional Islam. What’s happening in Ingushetia is complete lawlessness. They’re planting drugs and weapons on people left and right. People’s property and cars are being taken. And the only one who has spoken out about this mayhem is Mr. Kadyrov, our dear brother.”
He takes a breath.
“My name is Anarbek. Three years ago, my father, Ibragim Belkharoyev, was vilely murdered. There hasn’t been a single search or arrest in his case [Chechnya’s Investigative Committee did not respond to Meduza’s request for comment about this claim]. We, the students of Batal-Haji [Belkhoroyev], will prove to the world that we’re adherents of traditional Islam, acceptable to the Russian state, and we’ll show who’s really a patriot and who’s really a terrorist,” Anarbek says.
“We’re prepared to obey any command from our Supreme Commander-in-Chief under the leadership of our dear brother Mr. Kadyrov!” another fighter chimes in. Anarbek then thanks Kadyrov for providing food and equipment to the soldiers.
“As far as rituals and other aspects, there are no global differences between the Batalkhadzhintsy and other brotherhoods of the Qadiriyya order of Sufism,” anthropologist Igor Pankov tells Meduza. “There’s nothing that makes them more likely to deviate from Sufi tradition and become radicalized than any others.”
At the same time, the brotherhood’s closed-off nature has engendered a fair amount of suspicion in Ingushetia, according to Yevgeny Ivanov, a research fellow at the Laboratory for Monitoring the Risks of Socio-Political Destabilization at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. Media reports have focused on ties between Belkhoroyev’s followers and illegal gold trading and have even gone as far as accusing the Batalkhadzhintsy of engaging in large-scale car theft. Gray market trade is a fairly common phenomenon in the Caucasus. But because members of the brotherhood are relatively wealthy by local standards in addition to being relatively secretive, media reports about their financial dealings get a disproportionate amount of attention.
Not so long ago, however, the Batalkhadzhintsy enjoyed significant economic and political influence in Ingushetia — and stayed connected with the republic’s most influential figures. In 2007, for example, Ingushetia’s president at the time, Murat Zyazikov, received an award personally from Sultan-Haji Belkhoroyev, the grandson of Batal-Haji Belkhoroyev.
In recent years, according to journalist and researcher Milana Mazayeva, the influence of Belkhoroyev’s followers in Ingushetia has been waning. That’s partially a result of the rise of Salafis, fundamentalists who disapprove of Sufi practices. Salafi radicals have destroyed the headstones of Sufi sheiks, and in May 2020, unidentified individuals cut down a pear tree in the Ingush village of Ekazhevo that had been planted by Batal-Haji Belkhoroyev himself and was thus considered sacred by his followers. At the same time, in the 1990s and 2000s, Sufis often used state security forces to repress their opponents. Today, more and more Sufis (especially young ones) are converting to Salafism.
Islam Kartoyev, a 50-year-old former Belkhoroyev follower, now lives in Eastern Europe. At one time, he says he would have given his life for a fellow Batalkhadzhintsy member; now, however, he considers the group a “cult” and a “mafia syndicate.”
In 2012, after a former member of the brotherhood named Askhab Merzhoyev left the group and was killed by unknown assailants, Kartoyev visited the man’s mother to express his condolences. As a result, Batalkhadzhintsy elders ordered him to repent and pay a fine. When Kartoyev refused, he was expelled from the group. Other Batalkhadzhintsy confirmed to Meduza that people have been ousted and cut off from the group for religious differences but denied that any violence has been used.
According to Kartoyev, the Batalkhadzhintsy “engaged in criminal business with impunity” since they had sway over local law enforcement: “They had tentacles everywhere. If one of their men was caught with a weapon, drugs, or even murdered someone, everything would get sorted out.” Even Kartoyev himself traded gold and timber “not entirely legally” in Russia’s Khabarovsk region, he admits.
After Kartoyev left the brotherhood, his relatives cut off all communication with him. His sister, who’s now married to the grandson of Batal-Haji Belkhoroyev, hasn’t spoken to her brother in years.
‘I was ashamed to look my children in the eyes’
Even as they lost followers, the Batalkhadzhintsy still had significant political influence in Ingushetia in the 2010s. The descendants of the sheik himself occupied high-ranking positions in the republic. Two of them, Yakub and Yahya Bekhoroyev, served in the Ingushetian parliament until the early 2020s and maintained close relationships with Ramzan Kadyrov; in 2014, the Chechen leader even named a mosque in the village of Achkhoy-Martan after Batal-Haji Belkhoroyev. At the same time, relations between the brotherhood and Ingush security forces were already becoming tense.
Yahya Bekhoroyev, a 62-year-old pediatrician, is the last living grandson of Batal-Haji Belkhoroyev who’s not in prison. Until 2021, he was a regional parliamentary deputy and even led the body’s healthcare and social policy committee, but after a series of lawsuits, he stepped down. While speaking to Meduza’s correspondent, he leans on a black cane, an astrakhan cap on his head.
The first repressions against the Batalkhadzhintsy came in 2012–2013, he tells Meduza. “Then, in February 2015, they started raiding my brothers’ homes. There were four [raids] on my home, and seven on my brother Mustafa’s.”
When officers would conduct these raids, Bekhoroyev says, security agents would usually make the family go outside before planting weapons in the home (the Russian FSB’s public relations center did not respond to Meduza’s request for comment). In 2017, after several of these raids, Yahya’s older brother Sultan (whom local media identified as the “head” of the Batalkhadzhintsy — something the group denies), died of a stroke.
On December 31, 2018, after being targeted by two assassination attempts, Batal-Haji Belkhoroyev’s great-grandson Ibragim Belkharoyev, the father of Anarbek, was shot and killed in his car by unknown assailants.
Then, on November 2, 2019, Ibragim Eldjarkiev, the head of Ingushetia’s Center for Countering Extremism, and his brother Akhmed were shot, also by unknown actors, in Moscow. The murder precipitated both a major media campaign to paint Batalkhadzhintsy as a radical sect and a wave of arrests of the group’s members. According to Yahya Belkhoroyev, after the murder, the authorities’ raids lost even the veneer of legality. “Since 2020, the raids [of the homes of Batalkhadzhintsy] have begun with theft,” says Belkhoroyev. “They take everything they want from people’s homes. Clothes, linens. One family even said [security agents] took pickles from their basement and a pack of diapers.” After stealing what they want, he said, the authorities plant weapons before arresting the home’s residents for “illegally possessing” them.
In July 2020, Yakub Belkhoroyev, a grandson of Batal-Haji Belkhoroyev a member of Ingushetia’s parliament, was arrested and charged with stealing more than 18,000 rubles ($285,000) from a regional social insurance fund. He was sentenced to nine years in prison. On October 27, 2022, Yakub’s brother Mustafa, the chairman of Ingushetia’s accounts chamber, was arrested as well. According to Yahya Belkhoroyev, authorities raided Mustafa’s home seven times; it wasn’t until the last search that they “found” an unlicensed jewel-encrusted pistol.
After the fourth search, FSB agents detained Mustafa, threatened to kill his children, and tortured him with electric shocks. Nonetheless, he refused to sign a statement denouncing other Batalkhadzhintsy.
Islam Kartoyev believes the crackdown on the Batalkhadzhintsy is justified, but he doesn’t trust the authorities to operate legitimately. In 2010, he told Meduza, his brother was arrested simply for being an “onlooker” to an “anti-terrorist” operation. “They loaded him up as part of a crowd and took him away. He spent seven and a half years in prison [on charges of participating in an illegal armed formation]. Officers laughed at him,” Kartoyev said.
After the raids and arrests began, Batalkhadzhintsy began moving to Chechnya.
“We’re effectively Muhajirs — [people who have] left our homeland due to oppression on religious grounds,” says Yahya Belkhoroyev. He now lives in Grozny, where Batalkhadzhintsy feel safe under the protection of Ramzan Kadyrov. “When they raided my house [in Ingushetia] in 2018, my children offered the security agents tea and coffee. Then my daughter comes up to me and says, ‘Dad, they took a perfume bottle!’” he says. “I was ashamed to look my children in the eyes and tell them we live in a great country.”
The brotherhood’s protector
The Batalkhadzhintsy turned to their old friend Ramzan Kadyrov for help. On November 2, 2022, the Chechen leader posted an appeal on Telegram in defense of the Sufis, calling them his “close brothers.” “If they’re terrorists, then I’m terrorist number one,” he said.
But his protection came with a price: the Batalkhadzhintsy vowed to send volunteers to fight in the war in Ukraine.
For Kadyrov, the deal is a good one. In September 2022, after a group of Chechen women tried to hold the republic’s first protest rally in years, Kadyrov announced there would be no mobilization locally as Chechnya had already “exceeded the plan.” Instead, the republic would send volunteers from other parts of Russia — along with its own disgraced former officials. Former Secretary of Chechnya’s Security Council Apti Alaudinov, for example, fell out of favor a few years ago after rumors spread that he had jokingly slapped a portrait of Kadyrov. He’s now leading a special forces unit in Ukraine.
“People here understand the Ukrainians and sympathize with them,” an Ingushetia-based lawyer told Memorial. “Nobody wants to take part in a pointless war on the side of the aggressors.” In Chechnya, the situation isn’t much different. One woman there told Meduza about a friend of hers who shot himself in order to become eligible for government benefits and return home. Another Chechen woman said that one of her relatives became a family pariah after voluntarily joining the war. According to journalist Milana Mazayev, many North Caucasians’ opposition to the war in Ukraine is less a reaction to the Chechen Wars of the 1990s and 2000s than to people’s memories of Soviet deportations.
After the first detachment of Batalkhadzhintsy, which arrived at the training center in Gudermes on November 15, two more groups are slated to be sent to Ukraine. Altogether, according to Islam Kartoyev, the brotherhood promised Kadyrov 100 volunteers. Yahya Bekhoroyev himself sent two sons to fight.
At the same time, some Batalkhadzhintsy who spoke to Meduza on condition of anonymity said they have no ill will towards Ukrainians. Some of them spoke sarcastically about Russia’s “special military operation.” “If [Russia] has been recognized as a terrorist state, and we’re also terrorists, then what does the state need from us?” chuckled one older man.
Nonetheless, numerous Batalkhadzhintsy are willing to risk their lives and their children’s lives in order to save the brotherhood.
‘All we need is justice’
44-year-old construction worker Bakhrum Tachiyev hopes to be in the second group of Batalkhadzhintsy to be sent to Ukraine. He tells Meduza that Ingush authorities have already raided his home, where he lives with his four children and his mother, twice. “Justice doesn’t have a place in this republic,” he says. “My relatives are in prison for no reason. Some have been beaten.”
Bakhrum speaks for a long time, frequently returning to the topic of justice — something that he longs for but that seems unattainable. When asked why he’s going to war against Ukrainians if his problems are here in Russia, he responds, “If I go to war, everybody will understand who we are — that we defend the Fatherland. After all, we’re also Russians, and we need to fight like everybody else.”
But what exactly the purpose of this war is, Bakhrum can’t say. “I don’t fully understand. All other countries want Russia to collapse. And there are bad people inside the country as well… We reached out to a lot of different places. No response. But Ramzan Kadyrov helped us. We want the best for Russia. We’re not terrorists or militants. We’re peaceful people. Russia is a good country — it just needs justice. In all other aspects, things are good.”
Bakhrum’s mother, a gray-haired woman in a white headscarf, sits in a large leather armchair and whispers verses from the Quran. Her young grandson sits next to her. For a long time, her son explains to her in Ingush what she should say. “We all want to do whatever those at the top tell us,” she says. “And we command our children to listen to those in charge, whoever they may be.”
When asked whether she’s scared for her son, she perks up. “Who wants to give up their children? But you have to do it. It was that way back then, too. When we were expelled.”
She recounts how the Soviet authorities declared all Ingush people guilty and sent them into exile, where her younger brother and two sisters died, and how, as a nine-year-old girl, she had to gather cow manure in the frozen Kazakh steppe to heat her family’s home.
As she speaks, setting down her Quran, the five-year-old sitting beside her listens intently to his grandmother, who’s preparing to give up her son to save her grandchildren.