After leaving our luggage at the hotel, we go for lunch. Lithuania around Christmas is cold, some 10 to 15 degrees Celsius below zero. Degi parks the Saab, and we enter a small restaurant in the old city with green walls and black-and-white photographs reminiscent of a Parisian cafe. Our freakishly tall waiter lights a candle, and in the half-darkness of snow-covered Vilnius we begin to talk about Chechnya and its war.
"Even when my father was alive we would often move around. We lived in Siberia, in Poltava [in Ukraine], and in Estonia. But if in those days we had the feeling of being at home everywhere we went, now it's the opposite: no father, no home, nowhere. I'm like the eternal stranger and really don't live anywhere. I visit my mother in Tbilisi, my brother and sister in Sweden, go skiing in Austria, and swim in the sea in Greece. I could have long immigrated wherever I wanted -- Sweden, Holland, Germany. For a few months I lived in Paris, trying to size the place up. But no, none of it was for me. What keeps me here is.…"
He goes quiet, as if choosing just the right words. "Here I can still hear the Russian language. In Europe, I always get the sense that I'm at the edge of the world, always moving further from my home. I start to panic, thinking I'll never return, and because of the Russian language I got stuck here." What does Russian mean to him? "Only someone who has lost his homeland can understand that," he says with a sigh. "You won't understand. When you don't hear your native language, you start to feel a kind of hunger for it." And what does he consider his homeland? "Chechnya. Russia," he says.
Who would have thought: the son of Dzhokhar Dudayev missing Russia and its language? His father fought a war against Russia, and now his son misses the motherland and dreams of going back? Degi doesn't see it quite that way. "My father did not make war with Russia," he tactfully corrects me. His father, he says, understood that Chechnya had nowhere to go without Russia. He treasured Russia's literature and served its military well. He was the first Chechen general in the Soviet Union's armed forces and one of the country's best military pilots. "But he wanted a partnership [with Moscow], which would acknowledge the right of Chechnya to be its own state, the same as in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Lithuania, Latvia, and so on," says Degi. All those who wanted their freedom received it in those years. All except the Chechens.
As we're talking, the words of a friend, a Chechen, come back to me. I recall him telling me about the awful strife that began when Dudayev took office -- that when the trolleys stopped running, it meant the Russians were moving in troops. And so it was at the end of 1994 that the trolley buses in the Chechen capital of Grozny stopped. The Russian forces had cut off the electricity lines, foretelling the economic blockade that would marginalize the small republic. The tram lines through the city were literally torn apart after that, piece by piece, the tracks and cables hauled away. "My father did not want a war, but you see, that's how it happened," says Degi.
I ask him, if his father were alive and saw what his battle had turned into, would he regret what he had done? For a long while, he's silent. He holds a cigarette in his hand and looks into the distance. "You have to understand, I cannot judge my father," says Degi. "Everything was surging and roiling at that time. The entire republic wanted freedom. It was a euphoric time.… My father had support in the Kremlin. [The nationalist Vladimir] Zhirinovsky came to visit him. Senior officials in Moscow would invite him and say, 'Keep at it. Nice work. Don't quit now.' That created this illusion that victory was possible. At least maybe a victory like Tatarstan would later achieve -- an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation. But as it happened, Chechnya was goaded into war. And Russia was goaded into war. They could have come to an agreement and turned their neighbors into loyal friends instead of enemies, as happened in many cases afterward. Russia would have been stronger for it."