Meet Degi Dudayev. It's not easy being the son of independent Chechnya's dead president.
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.
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."
Degi figures that Moscow saw the Chechen question as a geopolitical problem. "If you look at a map, Chechnya is situated in such a way that you can't just cut it out. It is tied in with the rest of the Caucasus and with the rest of Russia irrevocably. We could not draw a new border and break off from Russia while being surrounded by Russia and essentially a part of it. To separate Chechnya would mean breaking off Dagestan, Ingushetia, Stavropol. So the question for Russia was probably not whether to lose Chechnya or not, but whether to lose the Caucasus or not. And taming the Caucasus is the Russian empire's oldest pastime. That's probably why they ended up leveling the place."
They finally bring us the meat we've ordered, but it gets cold: I ask question after question. In looking for the answers he returns to the past, and the contrast between the past and the present is so sharp that he literally begins to feel ill.
Just imagine what he's lost: Once upon a time he was the son of the president. Yes, the president of a tiny country, but a country fighting an empire. His father had audiences with Saudi kings and Turkish politicians. Pro-Western leaders from the Baltic states sent his father aid money. Meanwhile, Degi, the golden boy who had almost everything, rode to school with bodyguards. And for a while, the army of one of the world's biggest countries was powerless before his father's bunch of desperate warriors, across whose coat of arms a wolf had come to rest.
"That crest is on my shoulder, a tattoo, even though I know that Muslims aren't supposed to get tattoos. Before they bury me they'll have to burn it off my body. But by then it won't make a difference," Degi says, laughing, as he snuffs out his cigarette in the ashtray. That wolf is a symbol of Ichkeria, as the Chechens called their briefly independent state, and now punched into his skin with a needle, a stamp of loyalty to the cause his father served. "That flag and that crest hung only a few years. They were taken down, but they'll stay with me till the end."
* * *
To paraphrase the poet Daniil Kharms, "You could have grown to be a king, but you turned out to be nothing." Fate has been cruel to Degi: The son of a father killed in battle, he turned into a wanderer; meanwhile, the son of another assassinated Chechen leader got everything. "I remember Ramzan Kadyrov," Degi says, speaking of Chechnya's current leader, who inherited power in 2004 when his own father, a rebel turned pro-Moscow ruler, got blown up during the second Chechen war. "He was this kid who didn't talk much and ran errands for his dad, a folder under his arm." Today, Kadyrov has a fleet of sport cars and, a former boxer, rules Chechnya with an iron fist -- yet is very much beholden to his boss, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
As we sit, Degi smokes one cigarette after another. His jitteriness, his profile, his perfect manners, and his unshakeable sadness start to remind me of the actor Adrien Brody. Degi tells me that he remembers how he arrived in Chechnya while in the first grade and lived in Katayama, a neighborhood with alleys full of lilacs. He was so happy to be in a place where people spoke Chechen, the language of his father. Soon after, the war started. He lived in the presidential palace, but with round-the-clock security. Degi tells me that he practically had no childhood, but was happy nonetheless: He was among his own; he was home. Those last years of his father's life were Degi's favorite, he tells me: how they would go shooting at the range together, how his father taught him to use a firearm, the conversations about life, and life itself, on the edge, the peak, on the ascent. "For all the fancy houses and expensive cars and European capitals I've seen, I'll never be as happy anywhere as I was in our Katayama," says Degi, flicking an ash.
I ask him: Has he ever thought about the paradox that it's Kadyrov who has continued the work started by his father? He nearly chokes on his food. I ask him to hear me out: "Look, your father played fair. He was a Soviet officer who knew the meaning of honor and integrity. He said openly what he wanted. Ramzan does exactly the opposite: He says what Moscow wants and pledges allegiance, but the laws of Russia do not hold in Chechnya. There is no highlander democracy and no Russia state. Chechnya has become a little sultanate."
Degi laughs. "Sorry, I just remembered how someone once advised my father to impose sharia law in Chechnya. He laughed and said, 'If I cut off the hands of every thief, I'd have no Chechens!' I know, you want to understand what I think of him. Let me formulate the thought.… When people ask me what I think of Kadyrov, I answer, 'Kadyrov managed to do what others would never be able to do,'" he says, with the double meaning thick as syrup.
I ask about the legacy his father has in Chechen history. Is he the man who pulled his people into a slaughter, or is he the ideologue of independence? Degi again falls silent for a while. The questions are unpleasant, painful, ones I'm sure he's thought about a lot. "I think that however much the times might change, however many years might pass, my father will remain who he is, a symbol of freedom, which often bears a very high price."
Bearing the weight that fathers leave behind is more than some men can bear. Dzhokhar Dudayev's eldest son, Ovlur, moved his family to Sweden and refused the surname he was given at birth: Ovlur Dzhokharovich Dudayev became the Russified Oleg Zakharovich Davydov. "I'll never be able to understand that," says Degi curtly. His sister, Dana, got married and took her husband's name. Degi, the youngest, remains true to his father's name. Even though it brings him no shortage of problems -- security services watch his travels around the world with a magnifying glass -- he carries it with pride, like a family crest.
* * *
Like the candle at our table, our conversation begins to flicker to an end, and we walk out into the dark of Vilnius, illuminated by Christmas lights. Degi, a gentleman, offers his arm. "Hey, why don't we go see Gamsa?" he says, turning to me. "You wanted to talk to someone from those times, someone who knew my father, my family, me -- and nobody knows that better than Gamsa. He just got here a few days ago. It must be fate."
We get into the car and go to the hotel "to get Gamsa." A tall Caucasian is waiting impatiently in the lobby, glancing with interest through the window. He gets into the car and starts cracking jokes in that inimitable Georgian accent. His face seems familiar to me, but for the life of me I can't place it.
"You know, Yulia," he says to me, "I have this urge to go to St. Helena. When I'm there I have this feeling like I've come back home. I probably died there in a former life." I had the same feeling, I tell him, in Istanbul, when I looked through the windows on the Asian side into the Bosphorus and started to weep that I will never get to see my paternal home. Turning around in his seat, Degi teases: "Well, don't the two of you make a pair, huh?"
Our shoes squeaking in the snow, we walk from the car to the Radisson, whose Skybar on the 22nd floor offers a view of the Vilnius cityscape at night. That's where I learn that Gamsa is actually Georgy, and only later that he is Georgy Gamsakhurdia, the son of Georgia's first president, the man who gave his country independence. Over a drink my photographer whispers, "The only thing this table lacks is the son of Qaddafi."
Their fathers were friends who dreamed of creating a united Caucasus, who plotted together and helped one another. Gamsa's father, Zviad, helped Dzhokhar Dudayev with the legal issues of carrying out the referendum that declared Chechnya's independence and secession from Russia. With their histories linked, it's perhaps not surprising that they shared a similar fate: Gamsakhurdia was killed in 1993, Dudayev in 1996. It's an odd fraternity, these two exiled princes of the Soviet Caucasus.
While Degi and I are talking, Gamsa's phone rings and he walks away to answer it. He comes back to the table glowing. "Boris called. He asked me what I managed to come up with. When are we going to get into something, huh?"
"Boris" turns out to be Boris Berezovsky, the Russian oligarch who would die a few months later in his own London exile in late March. "Where did he get the money and the strength to get into anything? Russia's state TV keeps saying that he's poor as a church mouse and lives off people's charity," Degi quips. The force of their laughter makes the table shake so much the glasses start to dance. "Boris is poor?! And does the state TV say babies come from storks? Hold on; I have to go tell this to Boris!" says Gamsa.
The following morning, Degi picks me up at the hotel. We sit for a quick breakfast, and the waitress asks him in Russian: "What kind of coffee would you like?"
"White," he answers. I give him a quizzical look.
"Ah, right, white means with milk. Black means without milk. That's how the Lithuanians say it. You know, I speak six languages, lived in various countries, and in my head it's like a stew of different traditions, cultures, expressions. Sometimes things get confused, you know? Like when you wake up and aren't quite sure where you are and who you are. That happens to me sometimes."
As a child, he lived in Russia and he spoke Russian; then his family arrived in Chechnya, where they spoke Chechen; then Georgia, where he learned Georgian; then an English college in Istanbul.
"The first year I stayed silent because all the lessons were in English, and where would I have gotten English from? But man, did I start talking in that second year!" says Degi. Then it was off to the Higher Diplomatic College in Baku, Azerbaijan. "Turkish and Azeri are almost identical, so they were easiest to learn." And now it's Lithuanian. "Now that's a language not for our ears. But I'm like a polyglot already. Wherever I live for a bit, I start speaking the language," he says nonchalantly.
We pay a visit to the empty office of his company, Veo, which installs and sells solar generators and panels. "Before I worked in logistics, then decided to get into alternative energy. We partner with Germans, who are ahead of everybody in solar energy right now." There's gray wall-to-wall carpet on the floor, some computers and office equipment -- everything in dull, northern tones. He rents an apartment nearby in a newly built high-rise with a mirrored exterior. One wing is inhabited; two others are empty, with gawking concrete eyes. "Because of the financial crisis they dropped the construction. Call it Baltic pragmatism," he laughs.
The apartment is a high-tech studio with windows from floor to ceiling -- but it's cold and lifeless, and there's no sun coming through the window. It seems he hardly ever spends time here. It is a temporary container for his things, for sleep, but in no sense is it "my home, my castle," says Degi. There doesn't seem to be a single item that reveals anything about the inhabitant. His words come back to me: "no father, no home, nowhere."
On his silver MacBook we look through an enormous archive of family photographs. There's a young Dzhokhar Dudayev after his first flight on a fighter jet, standing at attention with other soldiers. In the picture, everyone looks straight ahead, but he is the only one whose torso is turned and looking to the side. (In many images, his posture recalls the words of Napoleon: "It's not I who goes against the current, but the current that goes against me.") There's Dudayev receiving various decorations and awards as general; then he's in Grozny and the shots turn to politics, fancy suits, burning eyes, and awed crowds of listeners. In the black-and-white shots, there's little Degi in his dad's general's cap. He's being held in the arms of the Chechen author and Dudayev's comrade, Mariam Vakhidova, with a caption that reads in English: "Little general." On Degi's laptop, the biggest file of photos is called "Daddy and me."
There are lots of pictures to go through, but he can't sit still for long. We get up to leave, and Degi quickly opens and shuts the door, turns out the lights, and runs down the stairs. He walks quickly, always writing something on his smartphone, as if afraid to stop. I point this out. "If you stop, you start to remember, to think, to reflect, so I try to keep moving: business, friends, the gym, the airport. Chechnya is like a taboo," he says. "Yesterday, I spent a few hours talking about Chechnya and fell out of whack. That kind of pain, you understand … it never goes away."
* * *
We decide to spend the day on the road, driving out to the Trakai Island Castle. Out on the highway there are old pines and firs, with their heavy caps and branches dusted in snow. Suddenly he says: "Tell me about Chechnya, what's it like there now."
For a long time I tell him, in detail. He has not been back since 1999, since the start of the second war. He listens in silence and then utters thoughtfully, "You know, maybe it's good that that's the way things are."
At the castle, Lithuanians bundled up against the cold scurry through the streets, but Degi wears a light knitted jacket with artificial fur. "No, I'm not cold, really," he says. "When we lived in Siberia, mom would wrap me in coveralls and send me to sleep on the balcony. She was a creative person, what can I say?" At the lake near the Trakai Island Castle are market stalls, and I look in to buy some presents for my kids. Degi, learning that I have two sons, starts buying up toys -- a rubber-band gun, a wooden battle ax, a sword, and a slingshot that could probably take out an elephant. I protest.
"Don't argue; they're boys!" he says. "They need to get comfortable around weapons early on. All the more because, you know, the times are leading toward a big war." I look at his face, which has gone suddenly serious. "You have to train men from childhood."
He tells me that in the third grade he carried an old TT pistol in his backpack and would disassemble and apply oil to his bodyguard's side arms. The love his father had for guns is legendary. Having become president, Dzhokhar Dudayev gave the right to bear arms to men (and boys) between the ages of 15 and 50. When the Soviet Army withdrew, leaving behind its military bases and arsenals, they were looted by the locals with great enthusiasm. As Viktor Baranets, a former Soviet colonel, puts it in his book The General Staff with No Secrets, the Kremlin wanted to divvy up the weapons in Chechnya 50-50 with the locals. President Boris Yeltsin even sent his defense minister to negotiate a deal with Dudayev. He didn't make it in time. By 1992, about 70 percent of the weapons had been snatched. By the start of the first war with Russia, the republic was armed to the hilt. Degi recalls a gift from his father: an Astra A-100 pistol, made in Spain. "For me it's better than any Stechkin or Glock for accuracy and size, and it has no safety switch and it's easy to install a laser sight."
In the evening we meet up again with Gamsa. I get out my audio recorder, and as insurance, Gamsa pulls out his own. "My father," Degi begins, "was friends with Gamsakhurdia, and a year after the referendum and Georgia's secession from the USSR, Zviad was in conflict with the Moscow-backed leader of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze. The Gamsakhurdia family wound up in grave danger. Zviad asked for asylum in Azerbaijan but was refused. In Armenia, they took him in, but under pressure from Moscow they were supposed to give him up. Any day they were meant to put him on a plane from Yerevan to Moscow, where he would be arrested. Or killed. So my father called up his personal head of security, Movladi Dzhabrailov, and sent him to Yerevan with a simple order: 'Don't come back without Gamsakhurdia.' He went there, burst into the office of the then-president of Armenia, [Levon] Ter-Petrosyan, took out a grenade, and pulled the pin."
"Yep, that's how it went," Gamsa says, picking up the story. "He said he would only return the pin when our family had landed in the airport in Grozny. And there he sat for a few hours [holding the live grenade] across from the president of Armenia until he got the word from Grozny that everything was fine, that we had landed. The president's guards wanted to arrest him or execute him, but Ter-Petrosyan said he had done a manly thing and let him go home. Can you imagine, Yulia, the kinds of days those were? Days of men and action!"
Degi remembers the moment when the Gamsakhurdias landed in Grozny. "Gamsa walked down onto the tarmac, raised his brows, and took a look around. It was just like that scene from Home Alone when the kid understands that he's going to be home for Christmas … without his parents. He was a chubby kid, calm-looking, but when I saw him I knew immediately that this kid was going to raise hell."
Then boys, they shared a few years of friendship in Grozny, battered by the Russian bombardment and deafened by the wail of military aircraft. It was a childhood spent between four walls and under constant security. "We didn't really have a childhood," says Degi, remembering an episode from those days. "Gamsa stole a bottle of cognac, and we drank it between the two of us. I was about 10; he was 13. And to save ourselves from Alla [Degi's mother], we climbed into my father's ZiL limousine and fell asleep in the back seat. Everybody was looking for us, thinking we'd been kidnapped. We had just gotten hammered and passed out! That was our little rebellion."
After arriving in the Baltics, Degi went to study IT. "What else? I was always sitting in a locked room and hanging out with the computer," he says. But it's clear that something in him needs that feeling of being close to death, that feeling that comes only in times of war. He snowboards and races motorcycles, pushing his Honda CBR1000RR to almost 180 miles per hour. Gamsa chimes in. "When things get really bad," he says, "I go up there [to the mountains], to some isolated spot, and I throw grenades into the gorge. What calms me down is that rumble, the explosions."
The two sons remember how their fathers, sitting by night in the kitchen, would draw out their grand plans on pieces of paper: A confederation of the people of the Caucasus, a new civilization -- with a highlander's code of honor, etiquette, respect for elders, and the freedom to bear arms -- all rooted in a secular state, with a constitution and democracy. "Our fathers dreamed of creating a completely new entity on the political map of the world," says Degi. In 1990, he remembers, his father returned from a summit in the Netherlands, where all the nations of the Caucasus had been represented, and brought with him a sketch he had made of the new Chechen flag and coat of arms: nine stars representing the nine tribes, or teips, of Chechnya, and a wolf laying down with a sun in the background. "Hard to imagine how his chakras opened in the Netherlands, of all places," Degi jokes about his father's inspiration.
In some sense it could be said that Gamsakhurdia succeeded where Dudayev did not. Perhaps it's just an accident of geography: Georgia was separated from Russia by the great Caucasian ridge; in Chechnya, the hand of the empire, or rather its rockets, faced no encumbrance. As for the sons, while Degi tried to flee the past, getting into business, flitting around the world, keeping his memories on the hard drive of his silver laptop, Gamsa really did go on to raise hell. He is an active member of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's team. At one point, the Kremlin put Gamsa on an Interpol wanted list after Kadyrov accused him of supporting terrorists hiding out in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge. A few weeks after our evening of drinks, back in Moscow, I receive an SMS from Gamsa: "Get this: During a meeting with his security men in Grozny, Ramzan put a million-dollar bounty on my head. What, is that all I'm worth?"
"You probably know that for a Chechen to leave his homeland, something extraordinary has to happen," says Taipov, the politician in exile in France. "In 2004, when Akhmad Kadyrov was assassinated and his son [Ramzan] was appointed leader, that is what happened. Everyone who was a patriot in the 1990s and stood up for independence -- and that was for the most part the intelligentsia -- they all understood that there would be no mercy. We were free, and they were not, you understand? That's why in 2004 we saw the second wave of emigration, the biggest in the history of the Chechen people. Everyone who was free fled."
"A young state makes lots of mistakes," says Gamsa. "Misha [Saakashvili] also made mistakes, of course. You can't get by without them. But in the end he managed to build a state based on the rule of law; he laid a foundation. Dzhokhar also made mistakes, but he managed to create the basis for a democratic society, a moral basis that was then fiercely destroyed." Degi tells me that, despite the brutality of war, his father categorically forbid torturing prisoners. "He put it this way," says Degi. "'How can you blame a soldier sent here by his motherland, drafted and ordered to go? He was thrown into the meat grinder; he was following orders, so why act like beasts and tear him down?' Once he beat the hands of one of his field commanders with the butt of his gun for debasing Russian POWs. If my father saw how one Chechen allows himself to degrade another today.…" A heavy silence falls over the table.
We are sitting in a bar called California, near a noisy group of Lithuanian basketball players drinking Irish coffee ("the drink of British spies," laughs Gamsa). The bill arrives, and Degi grabs it like a hawk lest, God forbid, Gamsa should try to pick it up.
When he walks over to the cashier to pay, Gamsa turns to me: "That's because he lives here, while I am just visiting. This is how he treats me as his guest. Caucasian hospitality. Dzhokhar raised him right. He's got honor and etiquette, like an officer, you understand? I think that's why he keeps himself apart from everything, because he sees filth from a distance and gives it a wide berth."
I return to the hotel past midnight. Vilnius shimmers with snow and lights. Outside my window, like a white mountain sits the main cathedral, a Catholic cross, mounds of snow, people headed home. And somehow I understand why Degi never became a real émigré, never left it all behind, never devoted himself to his memoirs or to opposition politics. This is why he got stuck in sleepy Lithuania, on this patch of snow, in this transit zone, longing for the Russian language and loving Russia and his little Chechnya honestly and unconditionally, like only a man who has lost his home can love it.
Aleksei Maishev/GQ Russia