MOSCOW—They were not celebrities; until a few weeks ago, nobody in Russia knew of the now sensational couple. She was a 17-year-old Chechen schoolgirl, and he a man 30 years her senior, a colonel in the Chechen police, a figure of authority in his region. Now theirs is the most discussed wedding of the year in Russia.
Among other things, it has drawn attention to polygamy in Muslim parts of the country, since the colonel made the girl his second wife. Is polygamy permitted by Russian law? No, it is not, but Chechnya is not Russia, many argue: it lives by its own morals, by its own laws, obeying the word of the republic’s boss, Ramzan Kadyrov.
A happy wedding or not, it was going to happen, because Kadyrov said so.
The atmosphere was tense at the marriage administration office on Saturday. During the official part of what Kadyrov personally called the “wedding of the millennium,” the bride did not smile even once. Her name is Louisa Goilabiyeva, known as Kheda to her family, a Chechen beauty with brown eyes, a soft smile and golden hair.
Press reports based on Goilabiyeva’s girlfriends’ comments on social networks suggested that her husband to be, Col. Nazhud Guchigov, had threatened reprisals against Goilabiyeva’s poor village family unless they allowed her marriage on the day of her 17th birthday, May 1st.
The colonel is as old as her father, who is a schoolteacher without any influential connections in the Chechen leadership. Goilabiyeva was aware that her future husband has a wife and children, she told Russian Life News, a television station. “It happened so that I am going to marry him,” she said blankly.
The drama was widely discussed on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The post by one of Goilabiyeva’s girlfriends said: “He is married and has children. She’s younger than his children. The Chechen woman is powerless; she can expect help from nowhere. Kheda told him that she has a boyfriend, but it was disregarded. They say that her boyfriend was beaten half to death.”
Russian bloggers reacted with fury—the colonel was forcing the young woman into his bed, many wrote. A local activist, Kheda Saratova, met with Col. Guchigov a few days before the wedding.
“He did not say he loved the girl,” Saratova told The Daily Beast. “It is normal in Chechnya not to talk of love. He said that his first wife went to the market to buy presents for his new bride and that attention in the media to their wedding bothered him, shamed him.”
Even if Goilabiyeva wanted to escape and be happy with a boy of her age, the rough-skinned, gray-haired Guchigov would never allow that to happen, experts said. And neither would any other Kadyrov officials. The towering figure of Kadyrov’s head of administration, Magomed Daudov, a former soldier with the nickname “Lord,” stood next to the groom at the ceremony as a reminder of who really was the godfather of that wedding.
“The rule of law does not exist in Chechnya in cases concerning Kadyrov’s friends,” says Sergei Babinets, a member of the Joint Mobile Group, an organization of human rights defenders in Chechnya. Babinets has monitored legal issues in Chechnya since 2004, frequently dealing with Chechen prosecutors, courts and police. “I am sure that the FSB [the Russian secret police] have many files on crimes committed by Kadyrov. One day their patience will come to the critical point, but for now Kadyrov still has Putin’s carte blanche in Chechnya,” Babinets suggested.
Last December, the Joing Mobile Group’s office in the Chechen capital of Grozny was set on fire. Kadyrov wanted to force his critics out of the republic.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin was asked about Kadyrov’s loyal forces burning property and kicking people out of Chechnya, he said at a December press conference: “In Russia everybody has to obey the country’s laws.” But Chechnya seems to have its own universe inside Russia, where Putin’s favorite acolyte does not respect the law and has fought against any attempt by Russia’s law enforcement authorities to implement it.
Last month, Kadyrov made it clear to Russian police that Chechnya was not welcoming their operations on its territory. Kadyrov ordered his security services: “If someone appears without your knowledge—it doesn’t matter if he’s from Moscow or Stavropol—I order you to shoot to kill.” The Chechen leader’s relationships with Russian law enforcement grew especially tense after several Chechen suspects were arrested for the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.”
Kadyrov’s men hold all the power they want in the republic, and Goilabiyeva knew that her future husband was one of them. Once a gentle girl with a ringing voice, she met her gray-haired groom at her senior prom in her home village of Baitarki last year. In such a place, people view it as “noting special” if a married policeman is looking for a younger wife at a high school graduation.
“For us it is a norm,” said Kheda. Goilabiyeva’s upcoming wedding increased Russia’s interest in Chechen Polygamy: 22 percent of Russians said they supported polygamist families but a majority of women, especially after age 35, were against the idea of men having more than one wife.
In Chechnya things are different. “Many generations of Chechens grew up in polygamist families,” says Milana Mazayeva, a Chechen journalist. “My own grandmother and other relatives had several mothers. They did not know who their real mother was.”
Nobody in the Kremlin spoke against Kadyrov’s blessed wedding. Pavel Astakhov, President Putin’s ombudsman for children’s rights, supported Kadyrov ‘s men in marrying younger women; in an interview earlier this week, the official said that “sexual maturity happens earlier” in the Caucasus. “Let’s not be hypocrites,” Astakhov said. “There are places where women are already shriveled at age 27, and by our standards they look like they’re 50. And, in general, the Russian constitution forbids interference in citizens’ personal lives,” Astakhov concluded.
Did Chechen women react with street protests to Astakhov’s words? There was no reaction. In Chechnya’s atmosphere of fear, nobody ever thinks of protesting, especially women. “By justifying this scandalous wedding, Russia demonstrated moral degradation,” says Timur Olevsky, a Rain television correspondent. “we are rolling several centuries back in moral development, it seems.”