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.