"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."