This past summer, a story leaked from the normally locked-down Russian republic of Chechnya. The republic’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, had misplaced his mobile phone at a museum opening and was so desperate to retrieve it that he sent nearly 1000 guests–including children–to his compound in the middle of the night and ordered them to discover its location.
It is unclear if the phone was recovered. In fact, Kadyrov’s spokesman later denied the incident had ever taken place. But the story highlighted a phenomenon about which many were already aware: Kadyrov is often photographed with his mobile, a device he utilizes frequently as an active user of both Twitter and Instagram.
If you take a random sample of the posts from Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s Instagram account, and you will find a little bit of everything. In one 24-hour period he posted photos from a wedding he attended, photos of himself and his cronies praying at the mosque on two separate occasions, a meeting he held with a popular Ingush religious figure, and photos from a fishing trip he took with Russian Railways executive, Sergei Abramov.
Full disclosure: Kadyrov blocked me on Twitter over a year ago. I’m not entirely sure why, but it doesn’t bother me very much. I can still look at his account if I truly want to. His tweets just do not appear in my news feed. My cohorts usually end up sharing the crazier Instagram posts and mocking them. Sometimes I will click on the link, but usually I refuse to. Kadyrov’s usage of social media outlets is not amusing. It is a propaganda tool that aims to legitimize both his lifestyle and his regime.
Look at Ramzan Kadyrov with children. Look at Ramzan Kadyrov with cute animals. Look at Ramzan Kadyrov praying. Look at Ramzan Kadyrov performing some macho feat of strength. Look at Ramzan Kadyrov posing with a celebrity. Look at Ramzan Kadyrov governing.
The governing photos are typically staged to look exactly like the official photographs of Russian President Vladimir Putin meeting with ministers in his government, or with other high profile officials. Through this photographic display, Kadyrov hopes to give off the impression that he is somehow on par with the President of the Russian Federation.
Ramzan Kadyrov came to power in a set of circumstances that remain opaque. His father was a religious leader in Chechnya who came to political power after receiving a series of concessions from Vladimir Putin’s government in Moscow. Kadyrov Senior promised to bring peace to the war-torn land after nearly a decade, and Moscow decided to place its trust in his word. He was inaugurated in October 2003, but was assassinated just 6 short months later. Ramzan was too young to legally take charge (Russia’s constitution stipulates that a governor cannot be younger than 30), but rumour had it that he was leader of the republic in all but name. In February 2007, less than 6 months after he turned 30, Ramzan was appointed head of Chechnya.
By then he had already consolidated power in Chechnya through a variety of strong-arm tactics. His critics accuse him of human rights abuses and of ordering extra-judicial killings of his opponents abroad.
Kadyrov officially joined Twitter in June 2012 as @RKadyrov. Just four months earlier, he was quoted in an interview saying that he had “little respect for social networks because they allow people to write “baseless stuff without taking responsibility.” For about a year prior to this he had an LJ account, but he soon lost interest and did not utilize it. His Instagram account was quietly launched 5 months after the Twitter account, in November 2012. It was not officially announced, however, until the following February 2013.
In an interview in March 2013, Kadyrov complained that his use of Instagram was actually making his life and work harder. “…my workload has increased. For some people Instagram is a way of relaxing, for me it’s an added burden,” The Moscow Times quoted him saying. He then went on to defend his use of the social media tool as a way to communicate with his citizens and help them with their problems.
After a scandal involving a photo Kadyrov posted of himself with a murder convict many believed was in jail, he threatened to shut the account down. The trial had been extremely controversial in Russia because it involved a racial dispute. Many complained bitterly to Kadyrov about his appearance with the convict.
But Kadyrov snapped back:
“Your comments are worth absolutely nothing. It is just empty chatter. That’s why I think it’s probably better for me to delete [my] Instagram [account] and work without taking an interest in your opinions on this or that issue.”
However, he quickly backtracked, and maintained his use of both Twitter and Instagram. He currently has nearly 559,000 followers on Instagram, and more than 102,000 followers on Twitter.
Most recently, Kadyrov has taken an active interest in the conflict in Ukraine. After posting photos of trucks carrying what he claimed was humanitarian aid for civilians, the Chechen leader also posted an edited montage of trucks being loaded with boxes he claimed were sent to Ukraine. He later added a photo of the aid being delivered with a thank-you note from the rebel leadership in Luhansk.
Moreover, after Russia annexed Crimea in February 2014, Kadyrov decided to invest in the territory. He offered to rebuild a mosque in the city of Sevastopol, the main port in Crimea’s southeast corner, claiming that the local Crimean Tatar community had requested his assistance in this endeavour. Whether he is using private or public funds to finance these projects remains unclear.
In April, Kadyrov also announced that the Chechen airline, Grozny Avia, would open a second hub in Crimea’s capital of Simferopol, with the hope of expanding later on. Within months, Grozny Avia was given permission to begin operating flights from Simferopol to Istanbul Antalya in Turkey, and Yerevan, Armenia.
Kadyrov’s expert employment of social media as a propaganda tool normalizes what should not be considered run of the mill. The photos and videos diminish the violence that characterizes his regime, formulating a narrative that portrays his rule as soft and cuddly when it is not.
In fact, it is doing so to such an extent that even sadism is moderated with a soft-focus camera lens. The brutality interspersed with photos of Kadyrov ‘working’ and playing ‘happy family man’, makes it quite easy to ignore the violent streak buried within.
It is easy to overlook the cruelty implicit in the selected photos, particularly if you don’t know what to look for or even what you are looking at. It is clear from the comments on Kadyrov’s Instagram that the average viewer is not aware –and probably does not care to know– about the atrocities Kadyrov commits to maintain his grip on power.
Of course it is fun to mock what we see and read. But we must never lose sight of the fact that what we are seeing is not just staged for us to mock and laugh at on our own social media accounts. By acknowledging and reporting on the publicity stunts Kadyrov shares with the public via social media outlets, we are contributing to the propaganda process that legitimizes his regime, and conceding to his right to govern the way he does.
All images have been taken from Ramzan Kadyrov’s Instagram Account
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