If you picture a warlord's Instagram,
does it look like this?
That's Ramzan Kadyrov: ruthless leader of Chechnya
and proxy of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Here he is nuzzling a deer.
These posts entertain millions of followers,
but what they mask is a dark reality.
Kadyrov recently attracted international criticism when reports revealed that gay Chechens
are being rounded up, tortured, and killed by authorities.
At a safehouse in Moscow, a Chechen survivor described the brutal interrogations.
After the news broke, Kadyrov's spokesperson, Alvi Karimov, denied the reports, claiming that:
Given the severity of the allegations against him,
it's hard to reconcile the brutality of Kadyrov's leadership
with his bizarrely entertaining online profile,
where he features animals,
animals and celebrities,
and, above all, his admiration for Vladimir Putin.
What you don't see is the violence and regression that have been rampant under his watch.
Chechnya is one of 21 republics in Russia,
where regional ethnicities are allowed semi-autonomous systems of governance.
It is a mountainous republic in a mostly Muslim region of Russia known as The North Caucasus.
In the 1990s, Chechnya suffered two devastating wars.
The first was fought by separatists who tried and failed to free Chechnya from Russian control
following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
A few years later, Russia initiated a second war to eliminate Islamist radicals who they
blamed for bombings that killed hundreds of Russian civilians.
The war was brutal and Putin's forces destroyed Grozny, the capital of Chechnya.
Putin later placed Akhmad Kadyrov, Ramzan's father, in charge of rebuilding the republic.
Akhmad became President of Chechnya in October 2003, but the insurgency continued
and in 2004 Kadyrov was killed when Islamist separatists bombed a parade he was watching in Grozny
After the bombing, Ramzan was swiftly ushered to Moscow, where he met Putin that same day.
At the time, he was leading Chechen security forces and had been blamed for several kidnappings.
But, despite the allegations, Putin positioned him for leadership
and he has been ruling the republic ever since 2007.
In that time, Putin has given Kadyrov ample funding in exchange for
keeping the Chechen conflict under control.
The Kremlin funds at least 80% of Chechnya's annual budget
and Ramzan Kadyrov spends that money lavishly
Not only on himself, but also on construction projects he constantly promotes.
He often features Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque,
an opulent building named after his father that symbolizes both Chechen renewal
and Ramzan's self-proclaimed commitment to Islam.
He has also used the money to fund an army of loyalists called the "Kadyrovtsy:
a militia that has roots in the security forces he ran for his father.
On Instagram he touts their strength and discipline, offering a clear threat to possible insurgents.
So far, his methods have delivered results.
Kadyrov has brought down Islamist violence in Chechnya, which has solidified his authority
and served as a major political victory for Putin.
Part of his strategy has been promoting a strict interpretation of Islam.
Online, he maintains a steady stream of overtly religious posts and in public statements
he insists that women wear headscarves and has supported honor killings
as part of what he calls a "virtue campaign".
He has also endorsed men shooting women on the street with paintball guns
when they are not fully covered, like in this YouTube video.
In addition to shaping his Islamic agenda, Kadyrov uses social media to craft a warrior
persona that is based in historical notions of Chechen identity.
It's an identity that can be traced back to the early 20th century,
when Leo Tolstoy wrote about the Chechen rebellion in his book "Hadji Murad".
Ever since then, ethnic Russians have perceived Chechens as fierce warriors.
And that image has played out over the course of history:
From the two Chechen wars...
...to the more recent photos of Chechens fighting for ISIS in the Middle East.
Now, copies of Tolstoy's novel come with a photo of a modern soldier on the cover.
The tough guy stereotype has also travelled beyond Russia.
It is telling that a mobster in "The Dark Knight" is known simply as "The Chechen".
Scrolling through his feed, you can see that Kadyrov channels that identity
with training montages,
martial arts clips,
and close encounters with threatening creatures.
But Kadyrov also poses as the benevolent leader of Chechnya,
who enjoys quiet moments with animals,
playing with his friends,
And performing the "Lezginka", a regional dance.
He also poses as Chechnya's biggest advocate,
and has paid for several Western celebrities to visit Grozny.
Past visitors have included the boxer Floyd Mayweather,
the actor Steven Seagal,
and the actress Hilary Swank,
"...a great honor to learn more about you and your country and what you're building."
who visited for Kadyrov's birthday in 2011.
"Happy Birthday Mr. President!"
Apart from hosting celebrities,
Kadyrov constantly leverages his relationship with Putin to bolster his authority.
On Instagram, he regularly demonstrates his allegiance to the Russian President.
But at times, his enthusiasm backfires.
He once framed a photo of a Putin critic between the crosshairs of a rifle scope,
a reckless provocation that led some people to wonder if Putin might be losing control of Kadyrov.
These missteps do not go unnoticed.
Kadyrov's nearly three million followers on Instagram
are around twice the entire population of Chechnya.
Some of his posts have already led to repercussions from Moscow.
In October, he proudly posted this clip from an MMA fight featuring ten year-old boys,
including his own sons.
In response, Russia's ministry of sport launched an investigation into the event
and later that month, Anton Siluanov, Putin's finance minister,
announced possible cuts to the Chechen budget.
Now, revelations about Kadyrov's persecution of gays have caused global protests
and created fresh tensions.
At a recent meeting, German Chancellor Angela Merkel
called on Putin to discipline his Chechen subordinate.
By then, Putin had already summoned Kadyrov to the Kremlin for a meeting,
but whether this did anything to change Kadyrov's behavior remains to be seen.
For the time being, Kadyrov continues to be Putin's man in Chechnya
and as long as he can keep the region stable, things are likely to stay that way.