Khodorkovsky film focuses on Putin's bond with Chechen warlord

‘The Family’ looks at Ramzan Kadyrov, his Chechen army and Kremlin links

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the exiled former Russian oligarch, has released a documentary film that challenges the Kremlin to rein in Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman leader of Chechnya, claiming he rules the mainly Muslim republic in Russia's North Caucasus as a personal feudal kingdom.

The Family , a documentary made by Khodorkovsky's Open Russia foundation and posted online on Monday, focuses on alleged human rights abuses in Chechnya, including arbitrary arrests, kidnappings and torture.

It also explores the relationship between Vladimir Putin and the controversial Kadyrov, whom the Russian president has said he regards as "a son".

Since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia has waged two violent wars to subdue a separatist movement in Chechnya that, over the years, has morphed into an Islamist insurgency.


Kadyrov (38) has been the driving force in the republic since 2004 when his father, Akhmad Kadyrov, then president of Chechnya, was killed in a terrorist attack in Grozny. Both men were once separatist rebels, but switched sides to support the Russian federation.

Feisty and charismatic, Kadyrov controls an 80,000-strong paramilitary group known as the "Kadyrovtsy" that has displaced Russian federal troops as the guarantor of Chechnya's security. "There are enemies of Islam, enemies of the people and enemies of the law. I'll fight them all mercilessly," he says in a video recording included in The Family.

Special fund

Due to Kadyrov’s strong ties with the Kremlin, Chechnya receives billion of dollars of subsidies from the Russian central budget every year.

In addition, Kadyrov collects huge sums from local businessmen and workers that, according to The Family, are channelled into a special fund named after his deceased father and overseen by the Chechen president.

The proceeds from this “complex system of tributes” have been lavished on Kadyrov’s pet projects, from the glitzy Grozny City development to fast cars and the lions in his personal zoo.

Outside Grozny, where the countryside still bear the scars of war, villagers were reluctant to speak to Open Russia, fearing reprisals from brutal Chechen police. A woman whose two sisters had disappeared from the carwash where they worked said she knew the kidnappers but could not risk the safety of her children by calling them to account.

Khodorkovsky, who made his fortune in the oil business, was Russia’s richest man when he was jailed in 2003 on fraud charges he says were politically motivated. After receiving a pardon from Putin, he was whisked out of Russia in late 2013 and settled in Switzerland. Using Open Russia as a platform, he has been campaigning for political reform in his country and the downfall of his nemesis – Putin.

Although The Family is horrifying to watch, most of the information about the violent lawlessness gripping Chechnya is already known. Khodorkovsky takes matters further, warning that Kadyrov has "turned Chechnya into a feudal department" that threatens to break Russia apart. "We must solve this problem," he says. "We have the necessary resources and we should use them."

Kremlin critics say Putin is not prepared to sacrifice Kadyrov, whom he sees as the only person capable of containing simmering Islamist unrest in Chechnya and balancing the intricate relations between the republic’s warring clans.

Commentators in The Family explain a more complex relationship where Kadyrov is not only the guarantor of stability in Chechnya but of Putin's hold on power.

Standby army

The Kremlin could rely on Kadyrov's private army in the event of an Ukrainian-style Maidan uprising in Russia, said Stanislav Dmitriyevsky, a rights defender at the Committee Against Torture. "If there was a Russian Maidan I don't know if Moscow police would shoot on the crowds. The Kadyrovtsy would [shoot] with pleasure."

The Family has been released at a time when Kadyrov, at the same time as swearing undying loyalty to Putin, appears to be pushing the Kremlin's patience to the limit.

All eyes have been on Chechnya since one of Kadyrov's former guards was arrested in connection with the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, a Russian opposition politician, who was shot dead near the Kremlin in February in a gangland-style killing. A sworn enemy of Nemtsov, Kadyrov leapt to the defence of the suspected killer, describing him as a "true Russian patriot".

In another challenge to Russian authority, Kadyrov declared last month that federal police had no business operating on Chechen territory without his permission and gave his troops instructions to shoot to kill uninvited law enforcers.

Political analysts say Kadyrov is fuelling discontent in Russia’s security services where officials resent Putin’s tolerance of the Chechen president’s abuse of power.

Russian police raided Open Russia's Moscow office last month, accusing the organisation of preparing "extremist" opposition literature. Khodorkovsky said the real reason for the swoop was Open Russia's plan to release a film exploring Kadyrov's place in Russian politics. Three days after the release of The Family, there have not yet been any official complaints.