Fight Club

The wrestlers of Chechnya and Dagestan compete as Russians. But in the hills — and even the gym — Russia is still the enemy

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Yuri Kozyrev / NOOR for TIME

The wrestlers of Chechnya and Dagestan compete as Russians.

Adam Saytiev, the Olympic freestyle-wrestling champion, does not even flinch when the gunshots ring out, echoing over the walls of his family’s home in the Russian city of Khasavyurt. They seem to come from the property next door, a ragged lot where he and his older brother Buvaysar, the three-time Olympic champion, opened a wrestling school in May, just in time to help train the local wrestlers, boxers and other professional pugs who will compete at the Olympics this summer. Adam’s bearded face, the mark of a Sunni Muslim in this part of Russia, shifts into a smile at my instinctive wincing at the sound of the gunshots. “Relax,” he says. “Someone is probably just having some fun.”

That isn’t too reassuring in a place like Khasavyurt. Lying in the middle of the North Caucasus, a stretch of highlands in southern Russia that includes the volatile republics of Chechnya and Dagestan, this city of 130,000 is one of the most lawless fronts in Moscow’s war against terrorism. For two decades, especially during the two Chechen wars of the 1990s, insurgents used it as place to rest and resupply.

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More recently they have started going there to recruit, which is why the town’s wrestling culture is about much more than winning trophies. Buvaysar, who won all three of his Olympic golds in the 74-kg (163 lb.) division, describes wrestling the same way Karl Marx described religion — as “a way of controlling the masses.” It is meant to serve as an inoculation against extremism, or at least as a distraction from it, by offering the local kids a way out of the slums that does not involve “going to the woods,” says Buvaysar, using the Russian slang for joining the insurgency. 

That is the choice Russian rule presents to the men of Chechnya: either assimilate or risk persecution as a terrorist sympathizer. It forces a nearly impossible balancing act between expediency and pride, and the Saytiev brothers, as role models, walk this wire in two very different ways. With age and success, Buvaysar, 37, has resigned himself to Russian integration, while Adam, 34, at least in word, continues to resist. Along the way they have both inspired a generation of Chechens to channel their aggression into sport, becoming actors in a form of soft power that has, until recently, served Moscow well. Every year, Moscow spends less than a million dollars to support the wrestling schools of Khasavyurt — much less than it would cost to build the universities or provide the well-paying jobs that this city decidedly lacks.

For Russia’s medal count, the payoff has been impressive. In the past four Olympic cycles, wrestlers from Khasavyurt have brought home eight gold medals in freestyle wrestling, along with at least 12 world-championship titles and countless trophies from national and European tournaments.

Wrestling prospered in this corner of the Caucasus after the Soviets recognized the pugnacity and brawn of the local men in the 1960s and sent some of the best Soviet wrestlers to the region to create training schools. The result has been an almost freakish crop of Olympic wrestling medalists from the area. At the Games in London, at least two fighters from Khasavyurt will compete to affirm the city’s nickname: the Foundry of Champions, which is scrawled on green signs near the central bazaar, showing Buvaysar in the middle of a grapple.

The New Masters

The Saytiev brothers, who have roots in Khasavyurt going back 13 generations, have served for more than a decade as somewhat reluctant poster boys for the idea of pacification through sport. They were recruited into this role right after the second Chechen war, which ended in 2000 with Russia’s conquest of the breakaway republic. (The U.N. called the Chechen capital, Grozny, “the most destroyed city on earth.” More than 50,000 people died, mostly civilians.) Weeks later, with Russian tanks still occupying the region, the newly elected President, Vladimir Putin, chose a former rebel mufti named Akhmad Kadyrov to lead Chechnya, entrusting him to control the separatists by any means necessary. Kadyrov, as a respected spiritual leader, was one of the few men who could make the Chechens accept the defeat and move on.

After his appointment, Kadyrov quickly called a meeting of local athletes, some of whom had just returned from the Olympics in Sydney. His son Ramzan Kadyrov, who would take over as the leader of Chechnya after his father’s assassination by separatists in 2004, went to Khasavyurt to invite the Saytiev brothers. They drove the next morning to Gudermes, a town that was serving as a command center for the Russian forces. 

Akhmad Kadyrov greeted them with lavish gifts. Buvaysar got a television, while Adam, who had just returned from Sydney with a gold medal in the 85-kg (187 lb.) division, was handed the keys to a new car. The gifts were tokens of the Saytievs’ role in the new Chechen elite forming around Kadyrov. “This was part of his social policy,” says Buvaysar. “Socialization through sport.” As Chechens and Olympic champions, the brothers were asked to apply this policy and help the Russians who had just conquered their homeland. 

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This was not an easy proposition. Growing up, Adam and Buvaysar were taught to remember the atrocities committed by the Soviets. Their “most vivid collective memory,” as Buvaysar describes it, was the mass deportation of 1944, when Joseph Stalin accused all Chechens of being Nazi collaborators and exiled almost half a million of them to Siberia and the Kazakh steppe, thousands of miles from their homes. Among the roughly 130,000 Chechens who perished during the deportation was the Saytiev brothers’ maternal grandfather. By the time the family was allowed to return, in 1956, their mother had lost six of her 10 siblings. “That is what we were raised on,” says Buvaysar. “These memories, all that pain — it makes a Chechen lose his temper in just a couple of seconds.” 

As a boy, Buvaysar channeled this anger into sport. In 1996, when he was 21, he competed at the Atlanta Games. It was a painful competition, not so much for the brutality of the bouts but because he was representing the Russian team while the Chechens were repelling the Russian army. “Everyone I knew was fighting the war,” he says. “And there I was like a fool in my wrestling tights, because I knew that my one machine gun would not add much to the battle.” 

He was keenly aware that back home, his friends and relatives were sheltering in basements from Russian bombs, tuning the antennas on their portable TVs to catch a glimpse of him on the wrestling mat. So after winning the final bout, Buvaysar dedicated his victory live on Russian television to the plight of the Chechen people. “Up to that point, Russia had shown itself to me only through the muzzle of a tank,” he says. “That’s all I had seen of her.” 

To most Chechens, Buvaysar was a hero. Yes, he had competed under the flag of the invader, but he was the first Chechen ever to win Olympic gold — a tremendous boost to morale. A month after his Olympic victory, the Chechens routed the Russian forces and, with the signing of a peace deal, won de facto independence for the first time in a century and a half. 

The victory would be short-lived. Three years later the conflict reignited under the command of Putin, who at the time was Russia’s Prime Minister, and the invading forces this time were not the disorganized battalions that then President Boris Yeltsin sent in 1996. Putin mobilized the full weight of the Russian army against the rebels, who quickly realized that further resistance was pointless. Thousands of them, including the Kadyrov clan, made peace with Moscow. The remaining separatists fled abroad or faded into the nearby mountains, where they began a campaign against the Russians that continues to this day. Inspired by a puritanical form of Sunni Islam called Salafism, the leaders of the insurgency call for the creation of a caliphate in the Caucasus under Shari‘a.

The Russian response to this insurgency is etched into the scenery of Khasavyurt. Around the corner from the Saytievs’ property, on Sultanova Street, stands the burned-out shell of a house where Russian forces recently cornered a group of suspected insurgents. Heavy artillery was brought in to bombard the house, killing everyone inside. These special operations take place almost weekly in this region, perpetuating a conflict that took 258 lives in the first three months of this year alone, according to a tally kept by the independent news service Kavkaz Uzel. 

Into the Woods

In a nasty signal of how intransigent this conflict has become, wrestling has started to produce rebel fighters in Khasavyurt, and the idea that this sport could serve as an antidote to Islamism has foundered. On the night of April 18, near a bridge overlooking a Soviet-era cinder-block factory, three men were killed in a firefight with Khasavyurt police. Two of them were later identified as professional wrestlers, including Ramazan Saritov, 28, who almost made the  cut for Russia’s Olympic team in 2004 and 2008. According to Russian security forces, he was the leader of a group of insurgents who were wanted for car bombings, ambushes against police and attacks on stores that sell alcohol. Five days after the shoot-out, local Islamists posted a “martyr video” online to mourn Saritov’s death. In one of the frames, he wears a T-shirt with the words russia wrestling team as he points a semi-automatic pistol in the air.

Ibragim Irbaykhanov, director of the wrestling school where Saritov and the Saytiev brothers began their careers, remembers Saritov as a clever fighter on a generous athletic stipend who had just built a house in Khasavyurt for his young family. “He could have gone to the Olympics [in London] in the 60-kg division,” Irbaykhanov says. “I have no idea what he was thinking.” But this was not an isolated incident. In 2008 the 15-year-old wrestling champion Movsar Shaipov was killed in a shoot-out with police just outside Khasavyurt. Two years later, the same thing happened to another local fighter, 19-year-old Nariman Satiev, a three-time world champion in Thai boxing. “There are so many that it’s complicated,” Adam says. “Some are forced into it. Others get fed up with the security forces. They get arrested once, twice, and soon it’s easier for them to go somewhere and start shooting back.”

There is also the constant strain of lawlessness in Khasavyurt that pushes men into the woods, Adam says. Human-rights groups have documented thousands of cases of torture, forced disappearances and extra-judicial killings committed by Russian security forces in the North Caucasus over the past decade, and the local government in Khasavyurt is so inept that the trash goes uncollected. By nightfall, the people start to burn it near the bazaars, creating an eerie constellation of bonfires that, along with the stench of the burning garbage, evokes the scenery of a failed state. 

Two Paths

For the local boys, there are only two ways out of this reality. Gifted fighters can find a way into the Russian elite through sport, a path best exemplified by Buvaysar, who will help coach the Russian wrestling team in London. He spends much of his time these days in Moscow, training and relaxing at a facility owned by the Emergencies Ministry in the city’s center. It has steam baths, a soccer field, luxuriant gyms, a dining hall and a small fleet of Mercedes for his entourage. Lounging there after dinner on a recent evening, Buvaysar had resigned himself to the fact that Russia has become his homeland. “You can’t force a Chechen to love Russia until he learns that love himself,” he said. “And I try to teach myself to love it.” 

Inevitably, his role as an ambassador of Russian sport has pulled him into politics. This year, Buvaysar served as one of the “trusted faces,” or campaign reps, for Putin during the presidential race, which gave Putin another term in office. 

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But Adam, who is far more religious, has chosen a different road. “He splits his time three ways — the gym, the mosque and the family home,” says Salim Nutsalkhanov, head coach of the Saytievs’ wrestling school. Still a bachelor, Adam sees religion as his purpose — far more than sport, which he associates with vanity. Over the years, his faith has come to supersede his athletic ambitions, and when he failed by a hair to make the cut for London, he did not seem too upset. “There are much more important things in life,” he says.

Out of loyalty and respect for his brother, Adam has agreed to help run the wrestling school, but he seldom joins Buvaysar on his jaunts to Moscow. Twice a day he goes with his mother to tend to the family cows, and as the animals lowed in their shed one evening in June, he spoke of Islam as the only defense against the foreign influences of Russian films, alcohol and secularism. “The image of Europeans that we see in the movies is not acceptable to a Muslim. No way,” he said. “If a Muslim loses his religion, he loses all meaning in life. That is why the war continues.” 

It is not a war for land or resources but a war for identity, Adam suggests. And if the Russian aim was to use sport as a weapon of assimilation, they should  have picked a better strategy. The trainees at the Saytievs’ wrestling school, some as young as 9, speak Chechen to one another, and most of them attend the madrasahs of Khasavyurt, which now outnumber the gyms. Twice a day, dozens of these boys flock to the Saytiev school to train with the champions who gather there, lifting weights, sparring and planning their victories in Olympics to come. None of them seem to notice the sound of gunshots that wafts in through windows from time to time. But when the call to prayer rings out from the minarets, they stop their training and piously turn toward Mecca.