The Story Behind a Chechen Wedding That Transfixed Russia and Beyond

Chechen bride Louisa Goilabiyeva, 17, is escorted by the head of the Chechen leader’s administration, Magomed Daudov, to a wedding registry office for her wedding with a Chechen police chief, Nazhud Guchigov, 47, in Grozny, Russia, on May 16, 2015. The wedding plans caused a storm in the Russian media and put the region’s ruler on the defensive. AP

One afternoon in late April, Elena Milashina, an investigative reporter for the Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta, received a call from one of her sources in Chechnya, the troubled Russian republic in the North Caucasus. A woman was calling on behalf of a group of people from a small local village, Milashina tells Newsweek. (She has been reporting from Chechnya for more than 10 years, carrying on the legacy of her murdered colleague Anna Politkovskaya.)

The Chechens wanted her help, Milashina says. According to the source, Louisa Goilabiyeva, a 16-year-old local girl, was going to marry a local police chief named Nazhud Guchigov, 47, against her will. Guchigov had given Goilabiyeva's family a choice: either they surrender their daughter or he would take her by force, and that force would also extend to her relatives.

At 16, the girl was under the legal marriage age, which is 17. To prevent his bride from fleeing, Guchigov had posted guards in the village. The only hope the family and the community had was to get the story out.

Milashina wrote a short post on Novaya Gazeta's website. What ensued was two weeks of confusion and media turmoil. The marriage shortly became the most discussed news story of the month in Russia.

After publishing the initial story, Milashina tried to contact Guchigov. In a phone conversation with her, he denied everything, saying that underage marriage was banned in Chechnya and that he was happy with his first and only wife, according to her reporting in Novaya Gazeta.

A week later, on May 5, the story took an unexpected turn, when the president of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, stepped in, bringing up the scandal surrounding the marriage during a meeting with local press representatives. According to Kadyrov, the wedding was indeed happening. He even sent officials to the Goilabiyeva family to make sure that they had agreed to the marriage.

After that, the marriage essentially became inevitable. No one argues with Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya. "There is this insane belief that if Kadyrov learns about an issue, he will do the right thing," Milashina said. "I was initially asked to bring his attention to the marriage. And I was stupid enough to hope that he would actually resolve the situation."

As Oleg Habibrakhmanov, a lawyer who helps human rights activists in Chechnya, told the Meduza website, "In Chechnya, there is a law that's called 'Ramzan said so.'"

In 2010, Kadyrov declared that the ancient tradition of kidnapping a bride should stop, and it stopped. He also insisted that in Chechnya the minimum marriageable age had to be 17. (According to Russian law, 16-year-olds can marry "in exceptional cases" if the local government agrees.) Louisa Goilabiyeva's wedding was initially scheduled for May 2, the day after her 17th birthday.

Kadyrov has been at the center of many controversies lately. When Zaur Dadayev, a former high-ranking Chechen military officer, was charged with the murder of the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, Kadyrov said that Dadayev was a "fearless and courageous man" who "would never make a move against Russia." After Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death last week, Kadyrov took to Instagram, his favorite media outlet, to declare his strong belief that Tsarnaev, whose father was Chechen, had been set up by American security forces. (He added that Tsarnaev had "an ideal biography for a governor candidate.")

After Kadyrov's statement, Guchigov and Goilabiyeva's wedding appears to have become a matter of national importance for Chechnya. It was rescheduled to May 10 and then postponed again. Meanwhile, Milashina continued drawing attention to the story. Several human rights activists, including Mikhail Fedotov, chairman of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, raised concerns and asked law enforcement officials to look into the situation. Many rumors circulated through messaging app WhatsApp, which, according to Milashina, appears to be "the one and only independent media in Chechnya." At some point, an open letter to Kadyrov attributed to Goilabiyeva's sister was distributed through WhatsApp. The letter, which Newsweek has not verified, protested the marriage.

Pavel Astakhov, the presidential commissioner for children's rights, who is known for being one the most vocal supporters of a ban on international adoptions of Russian orphans, said he would not investigate the case unless the girl or the family approached him about it. Then he declared the situation to be perfectly normal, citing different local marriage traditions and asserting that in some regions women become "all wrinkled up" by the age of 27. (Astakhov later apologized for that comment.)

On May 12, the bride herself spoke up, giving a short interview to LifeNews, a pro-government tabloid website. Goilabiyeva said that she had known Guchigov for some time and that she agreed to his marriage proposal because "he is a good and reliable man." In the video of the interview, Goilabiyeva's aunt can be heard prompting her answers.

When the interview came out, Milashina was on a plane on her way to the village where the Goilabiyevas lived, she says. When she got there, however, she wasn't welcome. Milashina reported that Goilabiyeva's relatives and other people who claimed to be her neighbors didn't let her to talk to the bride. They said that the marriage was completely consensual and demanded that Milashina leave, she wrote. She also reported that her car was followed by Chechen law enforcement officers throughout the whole trip.

The ceremony, which Kadyrov branded "the marriage of the millennium," eventually took place May 16. For reasons that are unclear, the person who presided over the ceremony was not an official but a local radio anchor. Kadyrov himself showed up and danced the lezginka, a traditional dance in the Caucasus region, to honor the newlyweds. In the video from the wedding (LifeNews covered the event live), Goilabiyeva appears visibly shaken and detached from her surroundings. The anchor has to ask her three times if she wants to marry Guchigov, because she answers too quietly. (However, such behavior isn't unusual in Chechnya, where the bride is traditionally supposed to be humble.)

"Everyone who watched that can easily get what this is about," Milashina said. "The family is under control. I witnessed hundreds of cases of the same nature in Chechnya: First, people want you to protect them, then they are put under pressure and start to collaborate with their own perpetrators."

Asked about the case, Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to comment on the story, stating to the media that "we don't deal with weddings."

While marrying a 17-year-old in Chechnya appears to be technically legal, it is still unclear whether Guchigov was already a married man by the time of the wedding (bigamy and polygamy are unconstitutional in Russia). He mentioned his wife when he first spoke to Milashina, but it could be inferred from Louisa Goilabiyeva's interview with LifeNews that her prospective husband was divorced.

Milashina thinks the amount of media attention that Goilabiyeva's story attracted is a sign that Russian society is getting fed up with the Chechen leader. "Kadyrov opposes himself to everyone else except Putin, whom he constantly swears absolute loyalty to," Milashina says. "He repeatedly shows his independence from morality, public opinion and Russian laws. I think Kadyrov's Chechnya has run its course.

"For many people, the marriage story is yet another sign that something is terribly wrong there, and the Russian public will put a lot of pressure on the government to deal with it somehow. I'm afraid that Kadyrov is leading Chechnya towards another war."

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