VILNIUS, Lithuania — We had agreed to meet at the airport, but no one is waiting in the arrivals hall. Out in the street, Vilnius is covered in fog, or maybe a fine mist of snow. Then, right at the curb, a black Saab comes to a sudden stop. The fine profile of its driver betrays the likeness of his father, and I walk down to meet him.
He exits the car -- tall and thin, with a fitted gray overcoat, a black polo shirt, and black loafers that have been shined to a high gloss. He greets me politely, extending his hand like a European. Yet it's unmistakably him: Degi Dudayev, the son of the late Dzhokhar Dudayev, president of briefly independent Chechnya, and persona non grata in today's Chechnya, once again under the control of Russia, where even talking about him could result in a fatal visit to the lion cages at the zoo. "I'm 2 inches taller than my father, but overall, yes, I look a lot like him. You can imagine what it's like to always be compared to your father and measured against him," he says with a smile whose politeness betrays either grief or sarcasm.
We get into the car and drive from the airport into the city. Outside the windows, the monotonous landscapes of the Vilnius suburbs flit by, gray-paneled apartment blocks, people in dark clothing. Degi is 29 years old. Nine of those years he has lived in overcast Lithuania, a zone of transit through which thousands of Chechens fled to Europe during -- and especially after -- the two wars with Russia over their homeland.
Musa Taipov, editor of the Chechen news site Ichkeria.info (which is prohibited in Russia) is a supporter of Chechen statehood, a politician in exile, and an expert on his compatriots abroad. Taipov says that only in France, where he lives, are there more than 30,000 Chechens. In Vienna, there are close to 13,000. "The authorities in European countries try not to publicize the number of Chechen refugees, but I studied this for some time and made contact with officials, so I can tell you that today in Europe there are no less than 200,000 Chechens." The leading countries are France, Austria, Belgium, Norway, and Germany. Chechens seldom stayed long in the Baltic states, usually moving onward. But the younger Dudayev stayed put at these crossroads.
His father died in a missile strike in 1996 in the midst of the first bloody war with Russia. Many expected Degi to take up his father's mantle, but the time never came. He never left a mark on Chechen politics, never headed any kind of government in exile, never started a foundation in honor of his father -- and in the three days I spent with him I tried to understand how he lives as the son of a man who, in some sense, changed the course of Russian history.
Degi drives with confidence, having buckled his seat belt (in Chechnya such obedience before the law would be counted as a sign of weakness). I ask him whether he is bored here, and in any case, why Lithuania? He tells me it's because his father led a division of strategic bombers in the Soviet air force that was stationed not far from here, in Estonia. That was from 1987 to 1990, just in time to catch the birth of the political movement for Baltic independence, a movement that helped spur the Soviet Union's breakup -- and helped inspire the move for Chechen independence that would come after.
The elder Dudayev had a very good reputation as a soldier. In the Estonian city of Tartu, he was given command of a division in decline, and in a few years he made it exemplary. He was seen as a kind of troubleshooter, a manager of crises. He rose to become a general and made close friends with Estonian and Lithuanian politicians during the nascent independence movements. He reportedly refused orders to shut down the Estonian parliament and television networks, and in 1990, when his unit was withdrawn, he resigned and returned to Chechnya. In the local media, he became known as "one of the three," along with Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the separatist leader of Georgia, and Vytautas Landsbergis, who fought for Lithuania's independence from the Soviets.
The Baltic states looked on him fondly. In the Latvian capital, Riga, there is now a street named after Dudayev. In Vilnius, there is Dudayev Square, which with classically Baltic irony abuts the Russian Embassy, as Degi points out.