GROZNY, Russia — When I first came to the capital of Chechnya seven years ago, large stretches of it lay in rubble.
Prospekt Pobedy (Victory Avenue), the central boulevard, was lined with tottering ruins. By the Minutka roundabout stood rows of five-story apartment blocks half-destroyed by bombing and artillery strikes a few years earlier. No one could possibly live there, you thought -- until you noticed a light bulb burning dimly through a shell hole, or a splash of color where clothes hung to dry on a balcony.
Seen today, the city is almost unrecognizable. Putin Avenue -- as Prospekt Pobedy is now called -- is a pleasant street lined with cafes, shops, and beauty salons. At its southern end rises the biggest mosque in Europe, its fluted minarets gracefully puncturing the sky. Beyond that, a cluster of high-rise office buildings are under rapid construction: At a squint, it could be a corner of Dubai. And all around are huge billboards with the grinning, bearded face of the man deemed responsible for Grozny's remarkable turnaround: Chechnya's leader, Ramzan Kadyrov.
"Our city is transformed," a shopkeeper told me the day I arrived last week. But the key question in Kadyrov's Chechnya is this: At what cost came the transformation, and was it worth the price?
In the mid-1990s, Boris Yeltsin sent tanks and jets into Grozny to stop separatists from breaking away from Russia and establishing a sovereign Chechen state. Tens -- if not hundreds -- of thousands of people died in the resulting mayhem, most of them civilians. But in 1996, the Russian army was repelled, shockingly, by a motley but impassioned band of Chechen irregulars.
Then in late 1999, after a chaotic three years of de facto Chechen independence, Vladimir Putin, Russia's prime minister, sent troops back into Chechnya. Once again, airstrikes were used to annihilate resistance, with brazen disregard for the suffering of noncombatants. This time, the Kremlin won, and the resistance fighters retreated to the hills, where they have kept up a guerrilla campaign against pro-Moscow forces ever since.
In that struggle, both sides have behaved abominably. State security services kidnap, torture, and kill suspected fighters, often on flimsy evidence. Meanwhile, the increasingly radical Islamist militants -- now embedded in other Muslim republics throughout the Russian North Caucasus -- assassinate officials and send suicide bombers to kill and maim civilians in Moscow and other cities.
Nonetheless, today Chechnya is the Kremlin's success story. Billions of dollars have been poured into reconstruction. And in comparison with the neighboring republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan, Chechnya is relatively calm. There are isolated incidents of terrible violence, but Grozny has an air of normality. It's safe to go out after dark. There are shopping centers, restaurants, and cinemas, things that are virtually nonexistent 50 miles away in Nazran, the largest town in Ingushetia.*
In exchange for this peace, the Chechens have been obliged to accept as their leader the man whom the Kremlin credits with providing it: the 34-year-old Kadyrov, a former rebel fighter who switched sides and was appointed head of the Moscow-backed administration.
Modern-day Chechnya is, in fact, one long love poem to Kadyrov. His face, and that of his father, who was president of the republic until he was assassinated in 2004, is everywhere you look. "A nation that produces such sons cannot but demand respect!" cry the slogans. "Thank you, Ramzan, for caring about our future!" Meanwhile, stalls at Grozny airport sell hagiographies in Kadyrov's honor ("the rebirth and further development of the Chechen Republic became [for him] a sacred duty," they explain), and local people call bulletins on the Grozny channel "Ramzan News" because they are dominated by his latest triumphs: Ramzan handing out apartments to homeless families, Ramzan dancing the lezginka, Ramzan leaping from his bed in the middle of the night to check on a construction site.
Any meeting with a state official involves a five-minute paean of praise to Kadyrov. An essay competition launched last month in Chechen universities -- titled "The Hero of Our Time. The Leader and Patriot" -- offers the following parameters: "The authors should write about the outstanding personality of the Chechen people and the person who has made a huge contribution to the republic's revival and stability, about the leader of the Chechen youth, the Hero of Russia, Ramzan Kadyrov."
Judging Kadyrov's true popularity amid this sycophancy is difficult because independent polls are scarce and elections in Chechnya are fixed even more extravagantly than in the rest of Russia. (In 2007, the republic reported an improbable 99 percent of the vote for United Russia, the Putin-led party that supports Kadyrov.)
It's fair to say he does have some fervent supporters. On March 7, a team of Chechen ministers and retired Russian professionals led by Kadyrov played a friendly soccer match in Grozny against Brazilian stars who won the 1994 and 2002 World Cups.
I sat in the stands next to Khamzat Dzhabrailov, 54, a former Soviet middleweight boxing champion who coached Kadyrov -- once a keen amateur boxer. "He is my boy, my beautiful boy," Khamzat told me. "He is brave, strong, wise, energetic, good, handsome." On the far side of the pitch, members of the Ramzan Patriot Club were chanting their hero's name.